Greening Hospitals Would Cut Health Care Costs

As President Obama’s health care reform prepares to rollout this year, all eyes are on whether it will actually lower health care costs. 

One area that deserves attention is the health system’s costly environmental footprint.

The study, "Can Sustainable Hospitals Help Bend the Health Care Cost Curve?" finds that cutting energy use and waste could save $5.4 billion over the next five years and $15 billion over 10 years.

Although hospitals are making progress, they are still among the most energy-intensive facilities in the US because they operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 

They account for 8% of US greenhouse gas emissions, according to a 2007 study. 

The sector spends about $10 billion a year on energy, which consumes 1-3% of a typical hospital’s operating budget.

Common energy-wasting practices in health care include fully heating or cooling unoccupied spaces, failing to maintain equipment, and neglecting to check for air and water leaks.

Operating rooms have a particularly large environmental impact, accounting for a third of all hospital supply costs and large costs for energy use and waste management: using disposable rather than reusable products; throwing away unused items from pre-packaged formulations for specific surgical procedures.

Hospital are serious waste generators, producing 6,600 tons of waste a day, including large amounts of toxic chemicals.

Reducing this pollution would reduce the incidence of human disease, thereby saving money for the health care system and society as a whole.

The authors recommend that all hospitals adopt such programs and, in cases where capital investments are financially burdensome, that public funds be used to provide loans or grants, particularly to safety-net hospitals.  

Cleveland Clinic won the award for environmental achievement for the fourth year from Practice Greenhealth. Criteria for the award include being mercury-free, recycling at least 25% of waste while holding regulated medical waste to 8% or less. 

Cleveland Clinic

The Clinic has 10 LEED-certified buildings and two more planned and is embedding sustainability throughout its operations from using green cleaning products to buying locally produced food for its cafeterias. It cut energy consumption 20% in the past three years and recycles 30% of its waste. 

Getting Greener

Virtually across the board, hospitals are getting greener by reducing toxics, doing energy upgrades, using greener cleaners, increasing recycling, and offering healthier food, according to Practice Greenhealth. 

Emerging areas include sourcing local food, eliminating styrofoam and water bottles and using solvents in labs.

85% of acute care hospitals have benchmarked their energy use with the online Energy Star Portfolio Manager, developed by the  Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It tracks energy consumption and prioritizes facilities for energy upgrades.

Palomar Medical Center, which opened last year in San Diego, has been called the "Hospital of the Future," because it incorporates best practices in healthcare and green design, such as interior and exterior gardens, extensive daylighting, energy and water efficiency. 

Recently, five hospitals were honored for their use of extremely efficient combined heat and power (CHP) systems that ensure uninterrupted power in the case of natural disasters and operating efficiencies of 69-75%.

The American Hospital Association has launched a website, Sustainability Roadmap, to help health care organizations implement sustainability initiatives. It has information on green building and related issues of efficiency and water use, waste and chemicals, and offers a step-by-step guide on implementation.

Check it out:

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