6 Sustainability Trends in Healthcare

Globally, the healthcare sector emits 4.4% of net yearly emissions, around the same as 514 coal-fired power plants. If the healthcare industry were a country, it would be the fifth-largest carbon emitter in the world, ranking alongside Russia.

Given these worrying statistics, it should come as no surprise that sustainability has become a key driver of healthcare transformation trends.

Increasing government regulation, combined with pressure from stakeholders and environmental interest groups, is changing how the healthcare sector approaches everything from building design to waste disposal.

In this article, we’ll be breaking down some of the critical sustainability trends sweeping the healthcare industry in 2021.

Green Building Design

There are 6,090 hospital buildings running 24/7 in the U.S. alone, making them the fourth largest energy user in the country. Some larger hospitals use more water and generate more waste than some smaller towns.

Implementing green building design allows healthcare buildings to both decrease their overall energy usage, reduce their grid dependence, and lower their energy costs.

At a basic level, the replacement of energy-intensive halogen lights with energy-efficient LED lighting and upgrading heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems can have a significant impact.

Indiana University Health was able to reduce annual energy consumption across their sixteen hospital buildings by 4.5% through this step alone.

Newly built or fully renovated hospitals are increasingly looking to adopt the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC)  Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building rating system to improve sustainability.

Green building design incorporates a variety of measures, from the use of low-flow plumbing to conserve water to increased use of natural lighting to reduce energy consumption. Green roofs reduce water pollution while also reducing energy costs by acting as insulation.

The implementation of green building design is scaleable, from replacing outdated lightbulbs to a full building redesign. However, research by the USGBC has indicated that executing green building design can improve efficiency by up to 30%.

Alternative Energy Generation

Renewable energy is the fastest-growing energy source in the United States, with much of it coming from wind and hydropower. However, recent cost reductions in the photovoltaic (PV) panels needed to generate solar energy have made it a viable and cost-effective alternative to grid energy.

Implementing solar collection terminals on unused roof space offers several advantages for healthcare facilities. Energy storage costs have fallen almost 76% since 2012, making battery backup in case of grid failure a viable alternative to costly fuel-oil or diesel generators.

Stored power can also be used to reduce energy consumption costs, as is the case with the CentraState Medical Center. Having installed a solar catchment center, the facility benefitted from a $300,000 reduction in overall energy costs.

These savings are so significant that CentraState plans to increases its solar generation capabilities to cover 50% of its total energy use. In line with the green building design ideas we covered earlier, the PV panels will also provide the facility with covered parking.

Reducing Latex and Chemical Exposure

Around 12 million tons of natural rubber latex is produced every year, and much of it is used in the healthcare industry.

Latex allergies are present in both healthcare workers and susceptible patients. Exposure to the fifteen allergenic proteins latex contains can lead to anaphylaxis and possibly death.

Certain patient groups are more susceptible to latex than others, with research indicating that 73% of patients with spina bifida are at risk. Similar analysis has shown that around 17% of healthcare workers suffer from a similar allergy.

Reducing the use of latex to protect these vulnerable groups has become a priority. Healthcare facilities are now turning to latex-free options for everything from gloves to limb casting.

Likewise, reducing chemical exposure has become a priority for many facilities. By their nature, hospitals contain a significant amount of hazardous chemicals. However, not all of those are chemicals are vital to patient treatment.

Floor waxing is a standard procedure in many healthcare facilities, even though commonly used wax strippers have been linked with respiratory ailments, including occupational asthma.

While cleanliness in healthcare facilities is obviously paramount, research has shown that traditional cleaning products and disinfectants contain persistent bioaccumulative toxins (PBTs) that are hazardous to both staff and the environment.

Reducing the use of unnecessary chemicals, such as floor wax, and replacing traditional cleaners with more environmentally-friendly options is an easy step towards sustainability.

Sustainability Audits

A comprehensive understanding of a facility’s current environmental impact is a critical foundation for moving towards a more sustainable model.

Conducting a sustainability audit allows healthcare facilities to compare their current systems to established best practices for sustainability.

Medical auditing for functions such as infection control is common practice, so the framework for sustainability auditing is already in place.

There is already governmental guidance in place in many countries in terms of established best practices for sustainability.

There are also overarching guidelines available, such as the LEED rating system in the U.S and the Eco-Management and Audit Scheme (EMAS) standards put out by the Council of the European Communities for Industry.

Implementing regular eco-audits allows healthcare facilities to measure the success of their initiatives and adapt to changing standards for sustainability.

Building Automation Systems

While the implementation of a building automation system (BAS) in more extensive healthcare facilities is a significant expenditure, there are substantial cost reduction and sustainability benefits.

An effective BAS allows a healthcare facility to be run a maximum efficiency, cutting operational costs and reducing energy waste.

A BAS uses a range of sensors to monitor a facility’s internal environment and makes changes to improve efficiency without needing oversight.

For instance, linking a building’s lights to a BAS allows the system to use door sensors to detect when the building is in use, turning the lights on and offer automatically. Lights can also be automated to turn on or off at certain times.

The HVAC system can also be automated, with the BAS monitoring the temperature in different areas of the building and adjusting to maintain a stable environment. As with the light, HVAC systems can be out on a timed schedule.

With the correct sensors, a BAS can also monitor air quality, registering a rise in carbon dioxide or pollutants and increasing ventilation. Chemical spills or leaks can also be quickly detected and the relevant persons alerted.

With lighting and HVAC systems making up a significant proportion of the average healthcare facility’s energy costs, employing a BAS has the potential to reduce utility costs by as much as 30%.  

Smart Supply Chains

The use of smart supply chains to reduce both costs and environmental impact has become a priority across many sectors.

Through the use of simulation tools and supply chain software, companies are able to optimize their supply chain, eliminating overstocking and cutting down on the environmental impact of transportation.

For medical device manufacturers, contracting with a manufacturing organization that provides an end to end service represents a way to both reduce costs and their carbon footprint.

Eliminating the need to move devices between facilities during the different phases of the process reduces fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions.

The Parkview Health Center implemented the Kanban smart supply chain method to ensure that their surgery packs were as efficient as possible. By employing a smart supply chain solution, they were able to cut down on overstocking and reduce the need for disposal and resterilization.

Medical Recycling

Of the total waste generated by global health-care activities, only around 15% of it is considered hazardous. Incineration of medical waste releases dioxins, furans, and particulate matter into the environment, and improper disposal can release chemical or biological hazards.

Healthcare facilities are increasingly implementing education and recycling programs to increase sustainability and reduce medical waste’s environmental impact.

Hospitals are engaging with environmental groups to establish appropriate recycling processes for non-hazardous medical waste. Education programs and accurate marking are vital to this trend as they allow staff to segregate recyclable waste material more effectively.

In concert with healthcare providers, healthcare packaging manufacturers are researching more sustainable packaging forms.

One example is Nelipak Healthcare Packaging who is conducting trials to convert the low-melt HDPE often used in sterile plastic barriers into other extruded plastic products.

The used sterile plastic barriers can be collected downstream and, through post-processing, be reused for in-demand plastic items such as plumbing and drainage pipes.