When you think of hospitals, you likely envision places of healing, bustling with doctors and nurses, sterile rooms, and advanced medical equipment. But what if these very centers of health are also significant contributors to environmental harm?  


It's a paradox that challenges us to rethink how healthcare facilities operate. A healthy environment directly impacts human health. So, how can hospitals, which consume vast amounts of energy and produce tons of waste, transform into beacons of sustainability?  


The Environmental Impact of Healthcare Facilities 

Hospitals are notoriously energy-intensive. They operate 24/7, demanding constant power for lighting, heating, cooling, and medical equipment. The U.S. healthcare sector is responsible for 8.5% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, with hospitals accounting for over one-third of this.


For instance, the average U.S. hospital uses around 31 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity and 103,600 British thermal units (BTUs) of natural gas per square foot annually — far more than commercial buildings of a similar size. 


Additionally, hospitals generate a significant amount of waste, including medical, general, and hazardous waste. In the U.S., hospitals produce approximately 5.9 million tons of waste annually. This includes everything from single-use plastics to biological waste, much of which ends up in landfills or is incinerated, releasing harmful pollutants into the atmosphere source. 


Challenges and Solutions in Building Sustainable Hospitals 

However, reducing these environmental impacts is difficult. Hospitals often have strict development protocols that prioritize patient safety, requiring additional ventilation and filtering and, thus, more energy to operate. Furthermore, the number of hospitals in the U.S. is growing, adding to the industry’s environmental burden and increasing pressure on it to tackle its environmental challenges. 


High Energy Demand & Power Risk 

A hospital’s need for continuous power is one of the leading considerations when designing hospital infrastructure. It is so important that hospitals are legally required to have at least one backup generator with enough fuel available to run for several days. A power outage can result in serious risks to patients, medication, and operations, making hospitals hesitant to upgrade to new types of energy systems. 


However, there are various tried and tested strategies to help mitigate this. Installing energy-efficient HVAC systems, utilizing LED lighting, and designing with sustainable principles are all accessible solutions. Furthermore, implementing Prop Tech solutions to monitor energy consumption is an excellent way for hospitals to identify high-energy use areas to target for reduction without jeopardizing ongoing operations.  


Taking it a step further, capital improvement projects like onsite renewable energy systems can significantly cut energy-related emissions. They can be implemented to work in tandem with existing utility connections, so if onsite renewable energy fails to meet demand, purchased power will still be available. This adds a third layer of energy security to the already existing requirements. 


Even better, this idea is not new and has been implemented successfully by several hospitals. For instance, Gundersen Health Systems in Wisconsin achieved energy independence by investing in onsite renewables and purchasing renewable energy from the local utility provider. 


Waste Management Difficulties 

Managing medical and hazardous waste sustainably is another hurdle. Large portions of equipment and devices used in hospitals are single-use. While many items are not reusable due to health concerns, they can be disposed of more efficiently. 


First, hospitals can look upstream and downstream at the materials that enter their hospitals and choose sustainable options. Second, a robust waste management system is critical. This will include implementing strategies like more efficient waste sorting, recycling, single-use device reprocessing, and composting. MedWish International is a nonprofit focused on saving lives and the environment by providing a method for hospitals across the world to redirect surplus medical supplies for humanitarian aid. 


The Health Benefits of Sustainable Healthcare Facilities 

There is a direct connection between environmental quality and public health. Sustainable practices in hospitals contribute to cleaner air and water, which in turn benefits community health. The World Health Organization notes that healthier environments can reduce the global disease burden by 25%. 


Furthermore, sustainable practices in hospitals significantly benefit patient recovery and overall well-being. For example, studies show that having a view of nature reduces hospital stays by 8.5%, and a higher exposure to sunlight decreases the need for pain medication by 22%. Incorporating healing gardens and outdoor spaces into hospital design promotes mental health and reduces stress and anxiety levels among patients and staff. 


Additionally, improved indoor air quality helps prevent respiratory issues and speeds up recovery. Patients in good indoor air quality facilities report lower stress levels and shorter hospital stays. 


Sustainable Certifications + HealthCare 

Because of the attention to patient health and wellness, hospital projects are often closely aligned in their base design with sustainable building rating systems. A shining example is the new Glick Center at Cleveland's MetroHealth Medical System. Situated in an eco-district, the building has already been awarded for environmental sustainability by Practice Greehealth and is LEED Certified! Many concepts in the LEED and WELL ratings systems overlap, making the joint pursuit of certification a no-brainer. 


Transforming Healthcare Facilities for a Sustainable Future 

Sustainability in healthcare is not just about reducing emissions and conserving energy; it's also about creating environments that promote health and well-being. By adopting sustainable practices, hospitals not only minimize their environmental footprint, but also enhance the overall health of their surrounding communities and patients. 


At Emerald Built Environments, we specialize in transforming businesses, buildings, and facilities into sustainable powerhouses. Our innovative designs and efficient solutions help hospitals achieve their sustainability goals. Learn more about our services and success stories.  


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