How Hospitals Can Cut Emissions and Achieve Zero Emissions by 2050

The Agency for Medical Research and Quality offers advice on how healthcare organizations can cut emissions and achieve zero emissions by 2050.

The branch of the Department of Health and Human Services encourages healthcare institutions, especially hospitals, to build systems to track and manage greenhouse gas emissions, appoint leaders to oversee progress, set goals and timelines, and invest in technologies that measure their environmental impact.

AHRQ jointly developed guidelines, released September 22 and published in JAMA on November 22, in association with the Health Improvement Institute. An increasing number of healthcare facilities are committing to significantly reduce their environmental impact. According to the AHRQ, here are 5 things hospitals can do to achieve these goals:

1. Reducing energy consumption and switching to carbon-free fuel sources. Hospitals can save energy by reducing airflow in unused operating rooms, using LED lighting, installing timers and motion sensors for lighting systems, and purchasing equipment with a favorable Energy Star rating. In the long term, hospitals must switch to cleaner energy sources, implement renewable energy projects and enter into power purchase agreements.

2. Manage transport and supply chain emissions. Healthcare organizations can centralize internal transport and supplier information to coordinate deliveries and reduce fuel consumption, and use route optimization technology to reduce travel time. AHRQ also recommends purchasing from distributors that participate in the EPA’s SmartWay program. Hospitals should decarbonize their vehicles and encourage employees to do the same. Organizations should look for electric or low-emission vehicles and install charging stations for staff and the public. Companies can also survey employees about their commute, increase the use of telemedicine, and fund local public transportation options that limit emissions.

3. Minimize leakage and excess use of anesthetic gas. Emissions of gases used to keep patients unconscious during surgery account for just 5% of a hospital’s carbon footprint, according to the AHRQ, but hospitals can do more. They can add gas alerts to electronic anesthesia records to reduce the amount of gas used for patients. Managers may also work with medical teams to determine which gases can be eliminated. For example, the AHRQ recommends that desflurane (also known as suprane) be phased out due to its cost and climate impact. The agency also cautions hospitals against central nitrous oxide pipelines, which are prone to excessive leakage.

4. Find climate-friendly solutions for pharmaceuticals and medical devices.. Medical devices and some pharmaceuticals produce greenhouse gas emissions, but environmentally friendly options are becoming more available. Traditional inhalers that release carbon into the air can be replaced, for example, with dry powder or soft mist devices. Hospitals can evaluate purchasing contracts to eliminate excess waste in manufacturing and shipping. Finding alternatives to plastic, moving away from single-use devices, and creating closed supply chains can reduce waste and save money.

5. Prevent food waste and switch to plant-based options. According to the AHRQ, food makes up 12% of healthcare facility emissions. To cut costs, hospitals could offer on-demand hospital meals, create patient-friendly portions, track food waste, compost, and donate surplus food to local organizations. Hospital dietitians could develop plant-based nutritional options for patients that are often healthier and have a lower environmental impact.

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