As one of the fastest-growing segments of the United States economy, the healthcare industry faces many challenges including quality of service, containing costs and dealing with healthcare insurance.
You can also add environmental waste and energy consumption to the list. Hospitals are one of the biggest energy consumers in the U.S. each year. They also produce millions of tons of refuse, from paper to toxic medical waste.
In recent years, hospitals have started to “go green” by reducing the amount of energy used and cutting down on waste. Here are some of the areas they have focused on.
Reducing Energy Use
Hospitals around the country are trying to find ways to consume less energy, something that can be difficult to do because of the need for hospitals to use energy for a number of important medical services and machines. In many respects, a hospital is like a mini-city or hotel, with laundry and cafeteria energy needs on top of medical equipment and facilities for doctors, nurses and other medical staff.
Greenwich Hospital in Connecticut provides a good example of how hospitals are attempting to cut energy consumption. The hospital saved 1.7 million kilowatt hours – about $303,000 in electric costs – by reprogramming its heating and cooling plants, updating its light bulbs and reengineering the hospital’s air handling systems.
In the past few years, medical facilities – at the urging of the Obama Administration – have converted recording keeping to electronic form. There are many advantages to storing medical records electronically, including giving healthcare workers the ability to quickly share information about a patient.
An emergency worker, for example, could access the patient records for someone they are trying to help and know the patient’s medical conditions or what type of medicines they are taking.
But another huge advantage of electronic data is the amount of paper that is not used. Administrators now store records - such as a medical claims audit or patient treatment history – in digital form, meaning tons of paper is not needed.
Changing Disposal Methods
Practice Greenhealth reports that hospitals produce a staggering 5.9 million tons of waste every year. Part of that is medical waste, which must be treated before taken to a landfill. Historically, most hospitals have used incinerators to disinfect medical waste, a process that requires a lot of energy and can also release toxic fumes into the atmosphere.
Increasingly, hospitals are looking at different methods. For example, some are looking into autoclaves, which sterilize material by subjecting it to high pressure, saturated steam for 15 to 20 minutes at a temperature around 249 degrees. Other methods include chemical treatment of waste or even microwaves to disinfect medical waste.
Handling Chemical Waste
Many of the chemicals used at hospitals – as well as items such as fluorescent lamps, LCD displays and flame retardant mattresses – can be toxic in the environment under certain conditions. Hospitals are looking at changing the items they buy to more environmentally-friendly products as well as creating programs to properly dispose of or recycle certain products (baby bottles, for example, or wheelchair cushions).
Buying Local Food
Many consumers today make a point of trying to buy their food from local producers. For hospitals, many of which run large cafeterias, purchasing food locally can make a huge difference in the amount of energy used to refrigerate and transport fuel from locations that are far away. And on the back end of the cafeteria operation, many hospitals are looking to work with composting companies to dispose of food waste. Much of this compost is then used by local farmers as fertilizer, completing the cycle.
Whatever methods they choose, hospital administrators are aware of the environmental impact of their operations and are working to make their operation more environmentally friendly.