The climate is changing, and, it seems, the health care sector has contributed to the problem. According to The Commonwealth Fund, the health care system accounts for about 10% of the carbon dioxide emitted annually in the United States. Globally, the health care sector is responsible for about 4.6% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. Recognizing their part in adding to an urgent global problem, more health care systems are cutting back on waste, carbon emissions, and energy use. As part of our continuing series looking at sustainability in health care, we’ve talked to three large health care systems to see what they’re doing to clean up their act. This feature focuses on the climate change goals of Kaiser Permanente.
- Who they are: An integrated managed care consortium, based in Oakland, CA, USA, with 39 hospitals, more than 700 medical offices, and more than 300,000 personnel, including 80,000 physicians and nurses.
- What they’re doing: According to Gary Cohen, “Linking their community health needs assessments with climate-related impacts to better understand the vulnerability of the communities they serve; major investments in renewable energy using creative financing; having staff devoted to sustainable purchasing across their entire supply chain; interesting food purchasing commitments system wide as part of their climate and sustainability strategy.”
- Climate goal: In 2020, Kaiser Permanente became the first health system in the United States to become carbon neutral.
In 2004, Kaiser Permanente was looking for carpet for one of its new cancer centers. “We were hoping to have carpet free of volatile organic compounds,” says Seema Wadhwa, executive director of Environmental Stewardship at Kaiser Permanente. “Unfortunately, nothing like that existed. You could not go to Home Depot or Lowe’s and get low-VOC carpet. But what Kaiser was able to do was leverage our desire to have low-VOC products in this hospital and work with vendors to the point where they realized that if this was a product they developed, there’d be a market space for it.”
Kaiser’s experience with low-VOC carpet is just one example of how the California-based health system, operating 39 hospitals and 700 medical offices across eight states and the District of Columbia, has been able to drive the market when it comes to sustainable practices.
“Fast forward to where we are now,” says Wadhwa. “Both you and I can go to Home Depot or Lowe’s and buy low-VOC carpets for our homes. And that was driven by some of the upstream work from Kaiser.” Like other large hospitals systems, Kaiser Permanente has been working toward sustainability in every corner of its sprawling system. In fact, in many respects, it is ahead of the pack, becoming the first health system in the U.S. to become carbon neutral in 2020. This meant Kaiser was able to eliminate the organization’s 800,000-ton annual carbon footprint, the equivalent of taking 175,000 cars off the road. Since 2008, Kaiser has reduced its operational greenhouse gas emissions by 29%, even while it expanded.
Hospital farmer’s markets and micro grids
To reach its next goal, Kaiser has resolved that 50% of the products it purchases should be sustainable by 2025. It’s cut back on anesthetic agents that are notorious sources of greenhouse gases and says that by 2025, 100% of the food it purchases will come from local farms using sustainable practices. Kaiser was one of the first health care systems to offer hospital-based farmers markets, today hosting more than 50 seasonal markets and farm stands at hospitals and facilities located across the country. Every cafeteria and hospital menu now offers at least one plant-based meal.
Kaiser also not only buys renewable energy but creates its own. The organization has installed solar panels at 36 of its facilities and in 2017 began operating California’s first hospital-based microgrid at its Richmond Medical Center. The microgrid, when paired with a 250-kilowatt solar installation, can store 1 megawatt hour of clean energy (enough to power about 330 homes in 1 hour), which it releases to help power the hospital whenever it is needed, saving the facility up to 50% on its energy bills.
But in all its initiatives, including a mission to restore the tree canopy in Baltimore neighborhoods, it’s in using its tremendous purchasing power to advocate for cleaner products that Kaiser may be having its biggest impact. It has eliminated triclosan and triclocarban from soaps, lotions, and sanitizers, and PVC and DEHP from IV solution bags. It has prohibited the purchase of building products containing PVC, including flooring, carpeting, handrails, signs, pipes, and even edging on tables (Figure 1). It has prohibited the purchase of fabric, furniture, finishes, and building materials containing fluorochemical additives or treatments as well as antimicrobial agents and chemical flame retardants.
“We’ve really looked at what it means to first do no harm when it relates to our operations,” says Wadhwa. “That’s what brought us to that carbon neutral point. And now it’s looking beyond that. How do we go beyond our four walls towards creating positive impact and healthier communities and really thinking through some of the social determinants of health and how they tie to environmental stewardship.”
For more information on sustainability in health care, see “Meeting the Green Health Challenge” in the September/October 2021 issue of IEEE Pulse, “A Move Toward Sustainability in Health Care” in the January/February 2022 issue, and “Ambitious Climate Goals by the Numbers” in the March/April 2022 issue.
- Health Care Climate Council. Climate Action: A Playbook for Hospitals. Accessed: Jul. 2020. [Online]. Available: https://climatecouncil.noharm.org/
- Health Care Without Harm and ARUP. Global Road Map for Health Care Decarbonization. Accessed: 2022. [Online]. Available: https://healthcareclimateaction.org/roadmap
- Health Care Without Harm. Health Care Climate Action Hub. Accessed: 2022. [Online]. Available: https://healthcareclimateaction.org/