Businesses have faced consistent pressure to “go green” and become more sustainable in their operations – and the healthcare industry is no exception. Green healthcare starts when health professionals work in an environment that supports their own health and the health of their patients and local communities.
Many so-called “green practices” and “green hospitals” focus strongly on prevention and wellness (e.g., nutrition and physical exercise). Other practices simply implement environmental programs encouraging the healthy disposal of medicines or recycling.
The Definition of Green Health
Green healthcare incorporates environmentally friendly and sustainable practices into healthcare delivery. It appeals to both health professionals and institutions for several reasons: it can reduce costs, position the hospital or business favorably to potential employees and patients, and can work to protect and can, directly and indirectly, promote and protect the health and well-being of the community they serve.
Green healthcare compromises working in a green clinic/healthy facility, advocating for a healthy environment, and practicing medicine in a sustainable manner. It also encompasses the body and psyche of the patient, the patient-doctor relationship, the physician’s health, the treatments used, the office or hospital, and the natural environment. These factors contribute to health and healing, providing a framework for effective intervention on several levels.
Benefits of Green Health
There are many benefits to green health care, especially if a facility can incorporate green health aspects from the start, e.g., choosing a site with natural views and excellent light, which offers health benefits and a more soothing environment. However, even minor moves towards greener healthcare will pay dividends in the longer term, including:
Green healthcare facilities aim to enhance the well-being of both physicians and patients and to restore the environment. This can provide healthcare businesses with a considerable competitive advantage as the general public highly values sustainability and is becoming more conscious of their own carbon footprint.
According to a study by Health Care Without Harm, energy and water reductions (as well as more efficient purchasing) could save hospitals $5.4 billion over five years and at least $15 billion over the course of a decade. Green health care can also reduce the risk of building-related health problems, building obsolescence, and energy price shocks.
Longevity and Community Impact
The benefits of green buildings emerge over the years and will be felt across the entire life span of a building. In addition, the benefits of a greener building and greener operations impact the local community in a positive way, not just the facility and its staff.
Contribution to Public Health
According to WHO, 20% of waste generated by healthcare activities may be considered infectious, toxic, or radioactive. There are 16 000 million injections administered around the globe every year, and not all syringes and needles are disposed of correctly. Healthcare waste may infect hospital patients, healthcare workers, and the general public. The wiser management of waste (including limiting incineration and recycling waste properly) can reduce these risks. Paper usage can also be reduced by using Electronic Medical Records (EMRS)
What Does Green Healthcare Look Like In Practice?
Green Healthcare can be applied across various levels. At a macro level, hospitals may want to invest in sustainable construction or eco-conscious development practices.
Changes at a more micro level may include:
- Ensuring that hot water heaters are used more efficiently
- Using tap water instead of bottled water wherever possible
- Switching to paperless records and moving paper-based forms and communication online
- Using environmentally friendly office cleaning chemicals
- Implementing and maintaining a consistent pharmaceutical disposal strategy
- Telecommuting wherever possible
- Introducing movement-sensitive lights and low-flush toilets
- Exploring renewable energy sources
It’s important to think of green healthcare as preventative medicine on a larger scale. By doing their part to operate more sustainably, healthcare practitioners are creating an environment that fosters a healthy environment and community.
How To Start a Green Healthcare Program
Hospitals, doctors’ rooms, and other medical facilities do not have to go to extremes to adopt a green healthcare framework. There are several “quick wins” that can be easily implemented for the betterment of a healthcare facility, including:
Introducing Reprocessing Programs
In 2020, Kaiser Permanente collected over 400 tonnes of medical devices for recycling. The company also reused or recycled nearly half of the nonhazardous waste generated, collected and recycled or composted 45,900 tons of waste, and avoided 1,500 tons of plastic waste through their reusable sharps container program. While the environmental benefits are impressive, the company says they have saved over $55 million from their reprocessing program alone. Single-use devices collected from the surgery department saved UCSF over $1 million. While some medical facilities fear that greening will be too expensive for them, it’s clear that any investments are offset by long-term savings.
Buying Environmentally Safe Cleaning Products
According to the Alliance of Nurses for Health Environments, chemical exposures in hospitals can trigger adult-onset asthma in nurses and cleaning staff. By simply switching to green-certified cleaning products, a hospital or doctor’s office can improve the health of staff and patients. It’s also recommended that staff avoid triclosan for hand washing, as it’s generally not considered more effective than soap and water.
Improving the quality and sustainability of hospital food purchasing is critically important. UCSF increased sustainable food purchasing from 9% to 26% over the past five years and introduced a program to purchase antibiotic-free meat. As 80% of antibiotics are used to treat livestock (cows, pigs, turkeys, chickens) for non-therapeutic purposes, antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” are inadvertently created.
Kaiser Permanente eliminated another source of chemical hazards in their hospitals – namely fire-retardant furniture. The company spends close to $25 million per year on furniture but avoids fire-retardant products to reduce chemical exposure in the workplace.
Educate Patients and Staff About Climate Change as a Health Issue
There is a direct link between the environment and public health. Smoke from wildfires, longer pollen seasons, vector-borne diseases, and drought all impact the public in a negative way.
Physicians have the credibility and audience to make a considerable difference in the community by simply speaking to patients and staff about the environment and the impact of climate change on their health. Reiterate that all staff has a role in minimizing the negative effects operations can have on the environment. Management should ensure compliance with all relevant environmental legislation and demand that suppliers adhere to environmental standards.
The corporate world has already made significant strides in greening its operations, driven by consumers who demand environmental responsibility from the businesses they support and the products they purchase.
Healthcare cannot afford not to follow in their footsteps. Not only because patients will insist on greener healthcare but because climate change directly impacts the healthcare industry.
Every healthcare facility should do its part to become more environmentally friendly. Even small steps, like becoming paperless or introducing telehealth options, can have a significant long-term impact on the environment and the community.