Healthcare Sustainability in the US: Environmental Considerations
By Kanan Nozaki
Introduction to Sustainability and the US Healthcare System
Sustainability is the idea of meeting the needs of the present generation while not compromising the ability of the future generation to meet their needs. One of the critical sustainability issues humanity faces is the rise of climate change. Carbon dioxide emissions and footprints have contributed to an increase in global warming and drastic changes in the environment, such as increasing sea level, rising temperatures, destruction of natural habits for wildlife, etc. At this exponential rate, environmental sustainability cannot be achieved to an expected standard.
The provision of an effective healthcare system is imperative for the longevity and well-being of our society, and the US is no different. Although the United States healthcare system suffers from high costs of care and lack of insurance coverage, the US has served and improved billions of its citizens through its healthcare system. Regardless of this feat, healthcare sustainability in the US has recently been falling apart due to its unsustainable model. According to the Yale School of Public Health, the US health sector is the leading emitter of greenhouse gasses, producing nearly 10% of national greenhouse gasses – this is equivalent to 614 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. Globally, the climate footprint from the public health sector makes up 4.4% of global net emissions (Healthcare Sustainability & Public Health: Yale School of Public Health, 2022), leading to increased greenhouse gas emissions and resulting climate change. It is clear that the US healthcare system has been contributing to the going environmental problems we are facing today. To uncover this issue, the challenges and solutions to achieving environmental sustainability will now be discussed.
Challenges to Achieving Environmental Sustainability
The US healthcare system currently faces two main challenges that prevents from achieving enviromental sustainability: measuring carbon footprint and balancing financials between patient care and environmental considerations. For hospitals to function properly, they need a varied and efficient supply chain. However, these two factors make it challenging to measure each and every supply’s carbon footprint and toxic waste. Improving patient care directly correlates to higher costs due to new supplies, technology, patient safety considerations, etc. As a result of patient care improvisation, these institutions do not have the capacity to allocate sufficient money to environmental considerations and safety.
Ongoing Measures and Solutions for Alleviating Environmental Degradation
Regardless of these obstacles, numerous hospitals and medical institutions are taking measures to improve healthcare sustainability. For example, Cleveland Clinic in Ohio sources “30% of their food locally and sustainably, helping to shape a thriving food system with long-term benefits to the communities they serve.” (“25 hospitals setting”, 2022). On the other hand, Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center has incorporated an all-electric bus system, allowing the transportation of patients, staff, and materials, while reducing fuel costs and carbon dioxide emissions. However, individual efforts are simply not enough to preserve sustainability.
The achievement of net zero means that the US health services system needs to implement immediate measures at a larger scale. One way of doing this is to reduce the demand for healthcare services. Currently, with an aging population, population growth, and technological advancements, the healthcare service has the highest demand in centuries. This is also exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak as more people are visiting hospitals and getting treatment. By reducing demand for healthcare services, carbon footprints can be mitigated and fewer toxic chemicals are wasted. Tackling the supply chain, discussed above, is crucial too. Currently, “71% of healthcare emissions are linked to supply chain issues: the production, transport and disposal of drugs, chemical agents, and medical devices.” (Kent, 2022). By improving the supply chain carbon footprint through increased ESG disclosure/transparency and advancing technology, the carbon footprint can be again reduced.
Finally, through COVID-19, we have seen digitalization come to life. From Zoom to UPS deliveries, digital transformations have drastically modified our lives, allowing humans to communicate despite the limitations. The healthcare industry is no exception. Remote healthcare technologies and online sessions can reduce unnecessary travel to hospitals, resulting in lower carbon emissions. At the bureaucratic level, since president Biden’s presidency, an Office of Climate Change and Health Equity within the U.S Department of Health and Human Services was created (Southwick, 2022). This office is responsible for “promoting and translating research on public health benefits of multi-sectoral climate actions (ASH, 2022)”, while “supporting regulatory efforts to reduce greenhouse emissions and criteria air pollution throughout the health care sector, including participating suppliers and providers (ASH, 2022).
With the current measures being taken place, research will be continued to improve environmental damage. It is especially up to the public healthcare workers and administrative teams to make the effort to actually create a change in the environment.Delivering effective healthcare improves our immediate standards of living, but incorporating environmental stewardship improves our standards of living as well as our future generations.
(ASH), A. S. for H. (2022, July 25). About the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity (OCCHE). HHS.gov. Retrieved November 21, 2022, from https://www.hhs.gov/ash/ocche/about/index.html
Healthcare Sustainability & Public Health: Yale School of Public Health. Yale Center on Climate Change and Health. (n.d.). Retrieved November 21, 2022, from https://ysph.yale.edu/yale-center-on-climate-change-and-health/healthcare-sustainability-and-public-health/
Kent, C. (2022, February 22). The road to sustainability: What can healthcare do next? Medical Device Network. Retrieved November 21, 2022, from https://www.medicaldevice-network.com/analysis/cop26-healthcare/
Southwick, R. (2022, November 20). Amid RSV Surge, children's hospitals, pediatricians push Biden to declare emergency. Chief Healthcare Executive. Retrieved November 21, 2022, from https://www.chiefhealthcareexecutive.com/view/amid-rsv-surge-children-s-hospitals-pediatricians-push-biden-to-declare-emergency
25 hospitals setting the standard for sustainability in health care. Practice Greenhealth. (n.d.). Retrieved November 21, 2022, from https://practicegreenhealth.org/about/news/25-hospitals-setting-standard-sustainability-health-care