How Can Health Systems Reduce Their Carbon Emissions? Experts Weigh In

How Can Health Systems Reduce Their Carbon Emissions? Experts Weigh In
How Can Health Systems Reduce Their Carbon Emissions? Experts Weigh In

The healthcare sector accounts for 8.5% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. In order for the Biden Administration to meet its goal of reducing emissions 50-52% by 2030, health systems will need to get much more climate-conscious.

Health systems also have a moral obligation to do so, experts argued during a discussion held last week at the HIMSS conference in Chicago. They agreed that health system C-suites need to get more educated on ways to reduce emissions at their organizations, and they need to start taking action sooner rather than later.

Climate change can pose major risks to population health, said David Callaway, Atrium Health’s chief of crisis operations and sustainability. For example, wildfires in California have led to decreased lung function, exacerbated asthma, bronchitis, heart failure and premature death, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Additionally, climate change can negatively impact care delivery continuity — health systems often experience IT downtime during climate-related disasters such as hurricanes or ice storms, Callaway explained. The panelists also pointed out that climate change further worsens health disparities, as low-income Americans often live in heavily polluted ZIP codes.

The first thing health systems need to do to address climate change is to measure their emissions, declared Jodi Sherman, medical director of sustainability at Yale New Haven Health. She suggested that health systems designate an expert whose main responsibility is to measure organizational efficiency and sustainability. This person should focus on determining where the organization’s emissions are coming from and how they can be reduced, she explained.

“Once you know where those emissions are coming from, then you can do strategic mitigation,” Sherman said.

In her view, there are two main ways to reduce emissions. The first is by decreasing waste, which also saves money. Health systems can look for ways to eliminate things like excessive plastic waste and unnecessary lab tests and imaging studies. They can also try to encourage patients to opt for telehealth when they can, as this would get rid of the need to drive back and forth to appointments, Sherman pointed out.

The other main way to decrease emissions is to select green vendors, she explained. HCA Healthcare CIO Andy Draper agreed.

When any new health IT project comes through HCA’s door, the health system asks the vendor involved in the project to submit its carbon reduction plan, Draper declared. Surprisingly, he said the vendors usually have no problem doing this. This is often because the vendor is a public company that already has to comply with carbon reduction measures put forth by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

“It’s there — you just have to ask. It costs us nothing to ask the vendor. From big, like GEto small — they have a plan,” Draper said.

He also called out another key way to reduce emissions: analyzing the energy budget. These budgets are usually not very well-managed at health systems, Draper explained.

“The budget for gas and electricity is basically a linear credit. Every year, you take last year’s, and you add 3% or so. Any CFO can find savings in there — your operations planning teams are probably doing things that they’re just not measuring,” he declared.

The panelists agreed that many health systems don’t exactly see climate change mitigation as their top priority right now, as they’re battling a sweeping workforce shortage and severe financial pressures. But they argued that there are clear actions health systems can quickly take to reduce costs and save the planet, and these shouldn’t be ignored.

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