Sustainability – Is health care doing enough?

Oct. 19, 2022 / By Steve Delaronde

Extreme heat can be deadly. More than 11,000 Americans have died from heat-related causes since 1979 according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Europe and China experienced the hottest summer on record in 2022; and it was the second hottest for North America and Asia. This is the right time to not only ask how the health care system can respond to health conditions created by an imminent environmental crisis, but also ask what the health care industry is doing that might be contributing to the problem.  

Greenhouse gases (GHGs) warm the planet by trapping heat. The EPA estimates that 76 percent of GHG emissions in the United States are from burning fossil fuels for electricity, heat and transportation. Agriculture and other land use account for the remaining 24 percent. The U.S. health care sector is complicit in contributing to national carbon emissions. In fact, it accounts for one quarter of global health sector emissions, which is more than any other country. 

The U.S. health care sector is responsible for an estimated 8.5 percent of carbon emissions nationwide, and it continues to get worse. U.S. health care GHG emissions increased by 6 percent from 2010 to 2018. More than 80 percent of health care GHGs come indirectly from the production and transportation of goods and services procured by the industry. The remainder comes from direct purchases of energy and direct emissions from facilities. 

The overall health care cost attributed to air pollution and climate change in the U.S. exceeds an estimated $800 billion per year. Additionally, the total disease burden from U.S. health care pollution alone resulted in a loss of an estimated 388,000 disability-adjusted life years in 2018. This is similar to the years of life lost that result from preventable medical errors. 

While the health care system must respond to the crisis by continuing to treat patients with health-related conditions resulting from climate change, it also needs to confront the inconvenient truth that it is complicit in the problem. Quantifying the problem is the first step towards finding a solution and would start with measuring and reporting GHGs emitted by health care facilities. Standards can then be set to allow for annual performance tracking. 

Health systems can also create goals for reducing emissions and becoming carbon neutral. There are numerous examples of health systems taking steps to reduce carbon footprints, such as installing solar panels, obtaining EPA Energy-Star certification by reducing energy consumption and enacting water conservation strategies. 

Since meat and dairy account for around 14.5 percent of GHGs, some health systems are offering more plant-based food options to patients and staff to not only improve health outcomes and decrease food costs, but also to reduce carbon emissions. New York City Health + Hospitals has helped more than half of eligible patients opt-in to plant-based meals. 

Climate change has a profound and increasing impact on the health and well-being of all of us and particularly those who are susceptible to extreme heat, air pollution and socioeconomic challenges. The health care industry needs to understand how it is contributing to the problem and take the necessary steps to become part of the solution. 

Steve Delaronde is senior manager of product, population and payment solutions at 3M Health Information Systems.