President Obama’s new health care reforms will help millions more people in the U.S. get access to modern medical care and preventive health services, just like every other country in the developed world. All things being equal, that would lead to a rapid surge in greenhouse gas emissions attributed to the health care industry, which is already notorious for its resource-gobbling ways. However, things never are actually equal.
In terms of greenhouse gas emissions and waste reduction the health care industry has already been laying the groundwork for dealing with a potentially huge surge in demand for its services. That will not only come from Presidents Obama’s new health care reforms. It will also come from a rise in the population of older (and very older) people in the U.S., and from new energy demands by emerging high tech health care equipment.
Health Care and Greenhouse Gas Emissions
The health care industry already accounts for about 8% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. according to a recent study by the University of Chicago and that makes sense when you consider that many health care facilities operate 24/7, they have precise climate control issues to manage, and they house a large and growing number of energy-dependent medical devices. The study took into account greenhouse gas emissions related to pharmaceutical manufacturing. The health care industry also faces a number of unique regulatory obstacles when it comes to greenhouse gasses related to the control of infection, which depends on the use of disposable products, water, and cleansers. The disposal of medical and hazardous wastes is yet another problem area. The ability of the health care industry to assimilate rapid growth while addressing these issues makes it an important bellwether for global sustainability.
Health Care and Greenhouse Gas Emissions – Now for the Good News
Of course there’s good news! Despite the obstacles in its path the health care industry has been ahead of the curve in terms of an organized, industry wide effort to address sustainability issues. The Green Guide for Health Care has been up and running since 2003 with a sustainability toolkit for health care facilities, and even as far back as 1998 there was an organized effort to adopt more sustainable practices by the health care industry.
The health care sustainability trail takes many forks. Just to name a few there is reduced plastic packaging for IV bags and other disposable equipment,and new biodegradable products such as a surgical patch that breaks down inside the body. On the energy consuming side there has been a flood of new solar power installations at hospitals (health care facility campuses and rooftops are ideal for this), and the purchase of more off site renewable energy by hospitals (in Wisconson, one hospital even uses renewable methane from a local brewery). In some cities, entire groups of hospitals are plegding to cut carbon emissions. Carbon nanotubes, a cutting edge material of the new millenium, may also play an important role in the sustainable health care industry of the future; a team of scientists in Sweden and the U.S. has just demonstrated that carbon nanotubes can break down naturally in the body.
Health Care, Greenhouse Gas Emissions and the U.S. Military
Even as the last administration supressed information on global warming, the U.S. military was aggressively pursuing sustainability measures. The U.S. military is also a major consumer and provider of health care services and U.S. military sustainability has ramped up under the current administration so it’s no suprise that a U.S. military hospital in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, is the first hospital in the U.S. to achieve LEED Silver status. As reported by environmentalleader.com, the hospital will gain a 27% increase in energy savings by using a heat recovery chiller and other high tech equipment for climate control. It will also save 1.6 million gallons of water per year through plumbing improvements, and its integrated rainwater and condensate capture system will store up to 160,000 gallons of reusable water.
Image: Medical equipment by Todd Ehler on flickr.com.
Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.