Sustainability Efforts in Healthcare Lagging

Oct 1, 2018

Credit Martha Dominguez de Gouveia / unsplash

Sustainability has become a major buzzword in the corporate world. In 2015-2016, eighty percent of Fortune 500 companies produced sustainability reports, and seventy percent reported their carbon footprints last year.

But not all sectors are equal in this regard. Health care companies are some of the largest companies in the U.S., but a new analysis finds they are lagging when it comes to sustainability efforts.

Emily Senay is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Environmental Medicine and Public Health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and lead author of the new analysis.

According to Senay, the healthcare industry represents about 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and creates about 7,000 tons of hard and toxic waste daily. "The energy needs of a hospital are about twice that of a normal building," Senay said.

It’s easy to understand where the waste comes from: the constant turnover of hospital beds, medications going in and out of the system, and the need for machines and lights to be constantly on certainly add to it. 

That amount of waste is one issue, but the bigger issue, according to Senay, is that most large hospitals do not report how much greenhouse gas they’re producing, and because we don’t know that, we don’t know whether the rate is increasing or decreasing.

“You can't manage what you don’t measure. If you're not measuring it, even if your intentions are good, it's an inadequate response to it. And that's what we wanted to point out," Senay said.

Senay and her team compared large healthcare organizations against Fortune 500 companies and found out that they lagged greatly when compared to the business world. Which leads to the thought that maybe it’s shareholder pressure that makes businesses report.

“Shareholders are so anxious for this. They want numbers: What have you done? What are your plans? What's your strategy? Why should I invest in you if you don't have a five-year plan to manage climate risk," Senay said. "We believe health care organizations should get on board with that. In fact, it's a tremendous opportunity to lead in this area."

One organization, Health Care Without Harm, has been very active in looking at how we manage the resources we consume. 

But another way to approach the subject is to look at waste and health holistically.

"If we create better safer streets for walking. If  we bike more and we use less cars. We advocate for healthy foods. We advocate for community cohesion and the health care industry champions those things, it's a win-win on both levels,” Senay said.

So in other words, the best way to reduce the environmental footprint is to make sure that fewer people need to utilize health care services.

As long as healthcare organizations begin by reporting their waste and greenhouse emissions, we can start measure how well its working.