Diagnosing Health Care's Carbon Footprint

| Tue Nov. 10, 2009 6:44 PM PST

Ever wonder how much of the American carbon footprint is caused by the American health care system? In a research letter published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, U of Chicago researchers estimate for the first time. The result: a surprising 8 percent, or nearly a tenth of the country’s bindmogglingly fat CO2 emissions.

Interestingly, health care accounts for 16 percent of US gross domestic product. So are health care costs way out of whack? Or is the health care business unusually light on the C02?

Not hard to guess that one.

The biggest wastrel? Hospitals, with their high energy demands for temperature control, ventilation, and lighting.

Second biggest wastrel? The pharmaceutical industry, with its high energy costs of manufacturing and researching drugs, combined with high transportation costs for drug distribution.

Fixes? The authors suggest that hospitals create recycling programs (they don't have those already?) and buy goods and services from environmentally friendly suppliers.

As an example, the U of Chicago Medical Center's sustainability program created a plastic recycling program diverting more than 500 pounds of waste a day from landfills and mandating that 90 percent of cleaning supplies have Green Seal certification. These measures reduced waste costs from $55,000 to $35,000 a month. Apparently green is good for the medical greenback.

The Brits are assessing their health care footprint too. James Black blogging at Health and Environment says that Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) is Europe’s largest public sector contributor of CO2 emissions and accounts for a quarter of the UK’s total carbon footprint. He suggests this triage:

The average face to face staff meeting costs the NHS $415, and 82% of those attending meetings typically claim around $67 each in expenses. One meeting costs the Earth an average of 47kg of CO2. The NHS estimates that if just half of its management and frontline staff were to use video conferencing, 219,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions could be saved every year.

(Not that technological cures are carbonless.)

Jeannette Chung, lead author of the JAMA research letter, diagnoses the American system when she says:

"In this country, the primary focus is on issues surrounding patient safety, health care quality, and cost containment at this current point in time. The health care sector, in general, may be a bit slower than other sectors to put this [emissions] on their radar screen. But given the focus on health care policy and environmental policy, it might be interesting—if not wise—to start accounting for environmental externalities in health care.

Rx: Get wise. Fast.

Also, play more, get healthier.
 

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