Assessing the Environmental Impact of the Healthcare Industry

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Modern health care accounts for about 10% of greenhouse gas and air pollutants in the country.
Modern health care accounts for about 10% of greenhouse gas and air pollutants in the country.

Health care is a leading producer of environmental pollutants, but there's reason to be hopeful this will change.

Currently, modern health care accounts for approximately 10% of greenhouse gas and air pollutants in the country. Healthcare pollution indirectly harms public health, resulting in between 44,000 and 98,000 deaths each year —about the same number of deaths from preventable medical errors. Whereas the healthcare industry gone all in with the patient safety movement, not as much has been done with regard to environmental sustainability.

Authors of a study published in JAMA Network Open found that the 49 largest healthcare organizations fall short in Corporate Social Responsibility reporting compared with large corporations.1

Although this study doesn't sound promising for healthcare organizations, it isn't the whole picture. In an invited commentary penned by Jodi Sherman, MD, and Robert Lagasse, MD, of the Yale School of Public Health and the Yale School of Medicine, they suggested a number of additional points to consider.2

“More than 1200 US hospitals enrolled in the Practice Greenhealth Healthier Hospitals Initiative,” they wrote. “This represents broader interest in sustainability than the authors [of the former study, Emily Senay, MD, MPH, and Philip J. Landrigan, MD, MSc] were able to measure.”

The commentary goes on to note that clinicians are essential to encouraging a change. Drs Sherman and Lagasse suggest the use of a merit-based incentive program where physicians could be financially rewarded for “quality, clinical practice improvement activities, and cost containment.”

“[Drs] Senay and Landrigan are to be congratulated for developing a measure of the apathy with which large healthcare organizations in the United States seem to approach sustainability,” Dr Sherman and Dr Lagasse concluded. “However, their metric may lead to more pessimism than is necessary. There still remains considerable hope for a more sustainable future as evidenced by the participation of many hospitals in organized sustainability challenges.”

References

  1. Senay E, Landrigan PJ. Assessment of environmental sustainability and corporate social responsibility reporting by large health care organizations. JAMA Network Open. 2018;1(4):e180975
  2. Sherman JD, Lagasse R. How healthy is health care? JAMA Network Open. 2018;1(4):e181000.

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