Through environmental stewardship, hospitals can preserve and protect health
Hospitals are anchors in every community, doing good on a daily basis as a trusted provider of care for those in need.
What we rarely equate with hospitals, however, is that they also happen to be major contributors to environmental harm — just by virtue of the work they do. Chemicals, a whole host of supplies and a battery of energy-intensive machinery and devices allow hospitals to protect and preserve patient health while simultaneously contributing to pollution and carbon emissions.
Environmental harm is an issue that the health sector has taken great strides to prevent, working together to find better options that have the least negative impact. For Englewood, Colorado-based Catholic Health Initiatives (CHI), one of the nation’s largest nonprofit, faith-based health systems, protecting the environment is central to our mission and our commitment to build healthier communities across the nation. And this call never has been stronger or more important than it is now in the face of a changing climate.
Studies show that the climate is changing drastically and quickly. Scientists largely agree that the phenomenon is human-caused and that the future is bleak if immediate actions are not taken to mitigate the change. Carbon emissions continue to impact temperatures and weather patterns that contribute to devastating impacts on human health. As we see increasingly intense storms, flooding, drought and harmfully high temperatures resulting from climate change, we often see the immediate devastation but we fail to recognize the many ways in which ongoing impacts linger.
For example, flooding and runoff that exceeds proper planning allows harmful chemicals to infiltrate our water systems, affecting the quality of what we eat and drink as well as the precious ecosystems that are vital to our planet. Exceedingly high temperatures and drought affect our food sources and the growing patterns of our crops, often yielding less nutrient-dense food or a lack of supply. Changing patterns in the climate also change animal migration patterns, allowing vector- and animal-carrying diseases to spread in unprecedented ways. The air we breathe is polluted with particulate matters that continue to get worse. All of these things affect the health of the planet and its inhabitants.
Understanding these devastating impacts on human health, CHI recently released a report that was a culmination of some of the best research to date on human health impacts. "Climate Change and Human Health in the United States" (PDF) is our call to action for hospitals, communities and individuals. So many actions can be taken to reduce environmental impact; no effort is too small, and everyone must contribute to the solution.
At CHI’s 101 hospitals and other care sites in 18 states, we have taken action in all our communities, ranging from simple operational changes to technological advances across the system designed to reduce energy consumption, waste and pollution. Our system is diverse, serving communities in remote and rural areas and well as in major urban hubs. Although our facilities have varying capabilities, we know that every facility and every employee can contribute to creating a healthier environment.
Here are a few examples of CHI’s organizational efforts:
- We reduce our impact in our cafeterias by minimizing disposables and Styrofoam, reducing kitchen waste and purchasing local and sustainable food sources when possible. We also provide more meatless options, reducing our methane contributions while providing healthier options.
- We continue to work to reduce our energy use in facilities and offices through retrofitting and installing energy-saving fixtures and updating heating and cooling systems. Three years ago, we began using a billing system that allows us to track water, electricity and natural gas usage, and can directly measure reductions in our carbon footprint and set goals for future reductions.
- We reduce waste, pollution and chemical exposure, while increasing energy and water efficiency by using green building practices in new construction.
- We continue to improve our purchasing habits, reducing excess purchasing that results in waste and using single-use device reprocessing. In fact, our reprocessing efforts recently have been expanded to include all hospitals across our system, thanks to a new and promising partnership.
- We reduce waste in our facilities and offices through smart recycling, understanding that so many things we must use do not have to be diverted to landfills or incinerators. We use ongoing recycling for numerous items and hold special recycling events for atypical items such as electronics that are reusable or recyclable.
- Finally, we know that no effort can be successful without ongoing education and efforts to raise awareness. So, CHI works at the national, office and facility level to engage employees and inspire them toward greater organizational and personal responsibility.
CHI is a sponsoring member of the Healthier Hospitals Initiative, a group of 15 hospitals in partnership with Practice Greenhealth and Health Care without Harm, which came together six years ago to transform the health sector, helping hospitals across the nation to increase environmental responsibility and sustainability. We believed then, as we do now, that health care can be delivered without such harm and that we can create and protect health within our facilities while contributing to a healthier environment in the communities we serve.
As health care providers we are a vital part of the solution, and everything we do — from using safer chemicals to responsible practices in energy efficiency, waste stream management and purchasing — can contribute to our basic purpose of preserving and creating healthier communities. We cannot be called "health providers" if we are not dedicated to preserving and enhancing a healthier environment.