5 ways health care is healing the planet
The U.S. health care sector accounts for 8 percent of the national carbon footprint — the medical industry hasn't exactly had a reputation for environmentally sustainable practices. Now, though, health care workers are cleaning up their act.
Recent advances in the sector, aimed at reducing energy use and waste, have helped steer medicine in a more earth-friendly direction, says Jane Weldon, who teaches health care administration courses at the University of Phoenix Madison Campus. Here are a few of the latest green innovations coming to a health care facility near you:
1. Paperless medical records
One of the biggest ways health care has been able to reduce its carbon footprint is by switching to electronic imaging and records.
“Gone are these enormous rooms filled with 100 years’ worth of charts and files,” says Weldon, vice president of mission integration and clinical operation for a hospital in Madison, Wis. “Everything is stored and transmitted electronically now.”
This reduces paper and X-ray film, and it also decreases fuel use because people can send medical images electronically. And the energy required to maintain the digital images is insignificant compared with the reduction in paper.
2. Waste reduction
Hospitals are not only recycling paper and switching to reusable cups to reduce garbage, but many medical facilities are also reducing biohazard waste.
Previously, facilities had to move toxic materials off-site, where they consumed resources while being treated. Weldon’s hospital now places such waste inside an innovative washing machine-sized apparatus, which treats the waste and turns it into biodegradable material.
“The whole biohazard-waste component,” Weldon says, “is completely removed from the equation.”
3. Eco-friendly cleaning products
Many medical facilities have switched to increasingly common sustainable cleaning products that don’t contain environmentally harmful chemicals, although these products are equally effective in controlling infection.
“These are changes that make the staff happy right away, when they become aware that they are no longer working with dangerous chemicals,” Weldon explains.
4. Sustainable supplies
From energy-efficient monitors that power down when not in use to asthma inhalers that get recycled after they’re used, health care facilities are using green products in every aspect of their business.
“Every one of those inhalers is a heavy piece of plastic that has to go somewhere when it’s disposed of,” Weldon says.
5. Green buildings
Designed to maximize sunlight and built with sustainably sourced materials — such as reclaimed wood and low volatile organic compound (VOC) paint, which doesn’t emit toxic fumes — green hospitals are cropping up across the country.
At the Monroe Clinic in Wisconsin, which is seeking Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, buildings also feature rooftop vegetation. “Not only does the green roof insulate the building and reduce energy use and water runoff,” Weldon says, “but from an aesthetic standpoint, the patients get to look out over a garden instead of a gravely dented roof. There’s a healing aspect to that as well.”