New research shows hospitals remain one of the largest polluters despite the industry’s efforts to address climate change.
The amount of greenhouse gas emissions that came from hospital systems increased 6% from 2010 to 2018, according to the findings of a Health Affairs study published Monday.
Researchers found the healthcare industry accounted for more than 8% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2018, the highest rate among health systems of any industrialized nation.
Study lead author Matthew Eckelman, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northeastern University in Boston said the industry has made important strides with initiatives like retrofitting facilities to become more energy efficient and using more alternative energy sources to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels.
But he said providers needed to do more to influence companies within their supply chain to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The study found more than 80% of greenhouse gas emissions came from sources such as hospital waste disposal services, food producers, pharmaceutical, medical device and equipment makers.
“In a lot of cases it’s a matter of choice,” Eckelman said. “You can buy re-usable blood pressure cuffs or you can buy a disposable blood pressure cuff often made by the same manufacturer—so in many cases it’s as much about will and procurement and having policies that incentivizes purchasing of re-usable devices.”
The report’s findings highlight the challenges healthcare organizations face despite calls from industry leaders to prioritize the issue of climate change as a social determinant of health.
Earlier this year, Kaiser Permanente became the first system in the country to achieve carbon neutral status. Other providers, including Advocate Aurora Health, the Cleveland Clinic, and Boston Medical Center, are on track to reach similar goals within the next several years.
Efforts to address the public health threat posed by climate change have also crossed over into medical education. A proposal written by physicians at six of the country’s top medical school programs published in September outlined one of the first curricula designed to prepare medical students on dealing with health outcomes affected by climate change.
While the voluntary work of individual systems has shown promise, Eckelman called for a more standardized approach for all hospitals that included a mandatory reporting system to measure greenhouse gas emission contribution, a plan for reducing them, and vigilance over achieving goals.
“Having a reporting mechanism where people in healthcare can see how their organization compares to other and how it compares to a national average that has shown in many other sectors to be an effective way to spur action,” Eckelman said.