Healthcare in America is a 2.5 trillion-dollar-a-year industry -- nearly a seventh of our economy. Something that big leaves a giant environmental footprint: billions of trees destroyed for paper, millions of tons of pollution and waste, and nearly a thousand trillion BTUs of energy each year. (That’s a lot.) Hospitals are more than twice as energy intense as commercial office buildings -- producing more than two times the carbon emissions.

To the green-minded, this is all very painful. But, alas, healthcare is in the midst of reform. And along with likely changes -- because of them, in fact -- the industry’s environmental impact can be reduced. Providing health services in America could soon become a much greener affair.

In fact, a green trend is already underway. The stimulus bill passed earlier this year is working to reduce healthcare’s paper footprint. A $20 billion health IT portion of the legislation will go a long way toward implementing electronic health records (EHR). Paperwork -- and thus paper-consumption -- will be drastically reduced, if not ultimately eliminated, with the creation of a National Health Information Network. And since the stimulus employs powerful incentives for physicians to switch to EHR -- we’re due for a genuine sea-change toward more environmentally sound healthcare.

But still, a lot more can be done. Hospitals needn’t use nearly so much energy. And while the stimulus bill doesn’t help us here, the health reform legislation currently working its way through Congress could realistically ensure significant energy reductions.

The final bill could mandate certain standards for hospital construction and administration that would go a long way toward reducing energy use. For example, a LEED rating system could be applied to all hospital construction, renovation, and operation. Similarly, Congress could require that all hospital purchases use the EPEAT system, allowing purchasers to evaluate, compare and select computers and other electronics based on their environmental attributes. According to the Department of Energy, full implementation of the EPEAT system in American hospitals could reduce hospital energy use by three percent annually or by 30 percent (of 1990 levels) over six years.

What about reducing hospital pollution? America’s hospitals generate nearly 7,000 tons of waste (infectious, hazardous, and solid) each day. And while most of the tools for reducing material waste lie outside the scope of insurance reform legislation, an environmental impact study along with treatment effectiveness studies could help.

Along with reducing pollution, the EPA has studied the effect of toxic waste on the environmental impact of America’s hospitals. Toxic materials “such as mercury, PVC, DEHP, cleaning materials, flame retardants, pesticides, and other similar products” are overused. And while in most cases these materials are genuinely needed, there are a number of toxic-using medical procedures that have less-toxic alternatives. Final insurance legislation could insist that public insurance plans (at least) no longer cover the more toxic alternatives. Greening hospital cleaning materials -- for instance, by ensuring they are mostly natural or organic, as much of the food services industry has done -- and reductions in pesticide use are being explored.

Since one of the main goals of health insurance reform is a drastic reduction of the cost of healthcare, it’s almost a sure bet that waste will be reduced. President Obama has touted a measure that would change Medicare payments so as to eliminate “duplicative tests ordered by different doctors for the same patient”.

Healthcare experts have repeatedly shown that such duplication happens all the time -- almost as a mater of course. According to research cited by the Congressional Budget Office, Medicare spending could be reduced by 30 percent by eliminating inefficiencies. And since a good deal of these inefficiencies are due to duplicated tests, all of which use up energy and materials, overall energy and material use could be brought down significantly.

Green healthcare may not be right around the corner, but if reform passes, some significant environmental improvements seem inevitable.

Green healthcare reform
Devereaux Bell explains how healthcare reform could be good for the environment.