This is the second in a two-part series on hospitals’ role in promoting sustainability. Read our first post about how hospitals can start their sustainability journey.

Climate change is a major public health crisis, and the Biden administration has made it a government-wide focus. The consequences of climate change directly affect health outcomes, such as by increasing rates of respiratory and cardiovascular disease. Climate change also poses unique challenges to access to and delivery of safe, high-quality care, especially for low-income communities and people of color.

The nation recently endured unprecedented and unparalleled hurricanes, tornadoes, heat waves and wildfires, droughts, and flooding. These overlapping disasters continue to strain health care infrastructure and the capacity of hospitals and health systems to respond to the long-term threats posed by climate change.

Essential hospitals are using their trusted voices to lead by example and actively engage in environmental stewardship. A 2019 association report highlighted how essential hospitals have mitigated the effects of climate change while operating with little to no financial support for sustainable climate practices. Despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, essential hospitals have continued to lead the way in sustainability practices.

Sustainability as a Business Approach

Even as COVID-19 presented unprecedented challenges for the health care industry, the pandemic presented several opportunities to implement new sustainability initiatives. For example, the spike in telehealth encounters has offset emissions and waste.

Association member The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, in Columbus, Ohio, reports nearly 600,000 telehealth visits since March 2020. These visits saved 1.6 million gallons of gas and averted 37 million miles of travel, 13,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide, and almost 20 tons of waste, says Aparna Dial, MBA, MS, senior director of sustainability and strategic services. As a result, the hospital received Practice Greenhealth’s 2020 Greenhealth Emerald Award, which honors advanced sustainability programs.

Further, the hospital identified carbon neutrality, zero waste, and energy conservation as long-term sustainability goals. Through the Ohio State Energy Partners program, the hospital installed smart meters in nearly all its qualifying facilities and retrofitted nearly 30,000 light fixtures with LEDs.

“We define sustainability as a business approach that creates value,” Dial says. “As we implement sustainability initiatives, we drive cost savings, preserve natural resources, and create positive outcomes for our community. Those cost savings can then be reinvested into programs that drive our core mission.”

Optimizing Energy Performance

Association member Atrium Health, in Charlotte, N.C., also adopted a climate-forward approach to health care that has set them apart as a sustainability leader. The health system modified its energy conservation practices and established the Enterprise Energy Management Program to support its mission to “Improve Health, Elevate Hope, and Advance Healing — For All.” Optimizing energy performance has saved more than $5 million annually in energy consumption, compared with a 2012 baseline. Further, the health system’s Enterprise Energy Management Program won the 2020 Smart Energy Decisions Innovation Award.

Fifteen Atrium Health facilities are certified by Energy Star, and the health system received the Energy Star Partner of the Year Award four years in a row, from 2018 to 2021.

Even with limited resources and competing priorities, essential hospitals are models in the health care industry in promoting sustainability practices. They continue to address the affect of climate change on their patients and infrastructure despite the challenges of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. These and other strategies to mitigate the effects of climate change need additional financial support and technical assistance to encourage all health care providers to adopt these innovative programs.