July 22, 2024

Health Minds

Nourishing Minds, Elevating Health

The transformation of green hospitals

4 min read


Healthcare is not usually considered when addressing what needs to be changed to reduce environmental impact. Even so, it is yet another environment where we can work to be more sustainable
Source: Colpisa

When thinking about recycling, controlling resource consumption, or optimizing materials to reduce environmental impact and improve sustainability, many industries come to mind. Anyone could make a quick list of where and why these measures should be applied. However, healthcare would most likely not have made that list, because hospitals are not generally one of the spaces that people think of when talking about how to make the world greener.

A study published in the summer of 2020 in The Lancet estimated this sector’s share of global environmental impacts to be between 1% and 5%. Given the healthcare sector’s intense level of activity — which represents an average of 9% of GDP — understanding the impact of healthcare on the environment is even more important, the article warns.

Patient transportation and the need to heat air and water have direct consequences on the environment, for example. The sector also has indirect impacts, such as those generated by manufacturing needs of some required materials. Additionally, we must add the waste that is generated — for health reasons, many disposable items are needed — every year as a result of the population’s medical needs.

Hospitals are very aware of their ecological footprint and how they should, or could, reduce it. There is already talk of “green hospitals.” There are global networks of healthcare centers that are making adjustments to reduce their impact, campaigns targeting the public — who need to participate in the proper management of medical waste — and actions to renovate facilities that already take into account environmental criteria.

Sometimes, the operational needs of healthcare centers are a window of opportunity to make these adjustments. This is what happened at Severo Ochoa University Hospital in Móstoles. In this case, the process began in 2014. “We realized that the facilities were obsolete,” says Javier Reneses, director of Management and General Services at the hospital. This is the type of renovation that any building will need over time, but here it was more sensitive because it was a hospital. When he explains their objectives, Reneses points out that they included an environmental one.

According to Fernando Durban, director of energy efficiency at Grupo Empresarial Electromédico, the company that carried out the renovation project, for this hospital in Móstoles, the changes are being made with a “spirit of continuous improvement.”

The photovoltaic installation will allow for 25% of the hospital’s energy consumption to come from this source. In the future, more could be done, such as using this installation to power electric vehicle charging points or meeting all of the hospital’s energy needs. Using systems that detect human presence — rather than movement — allows for a reduction in energy waste without being disruptive. Another area is heat reuse, using technology in a pilot project to reuse it to heat water or in heating systems, thus reducing gas expenses. The goal is to “be a self-sufficient hospital,” which is “very difficult to achieve, but achievable,” says Durban.

Examples of this change in vision of what a hospital should be are starting to be seen across the globe. Healthcare centers apply for environmental certifications, adjust their operations — including by creating green operating rooms — and reduce waste.

A complex transformation

The great challenge for hospitals in their green conversion lies in their own nature. They are not only sensitive spaces, but they also maintain constant activity. There is no moment of rest. “It requires a lot of energy, even at night,” Durban recalls. “The initial objective was to reduce the environmental impact without affecting [its energy needs],” Reneses explains about his own experience.

Hospitals cannot afford to make sacrifices in energy use that are feasible in an office building, for example. As Reneses recalls, hospitals provide critical risk services, with a very high consumption of energy resources. At home we can consider whether we need so much electricity, but this consideration is more complex in an ICU. Furthermore, they cannot be compromised by a failure in the power grid. This means their ecological transition is complex, but not impossible.

How can we change hospitals to make them greener? Both Reneses and Durban defend the value of public/private collaboration to make this transition possible, because it requires an investment that sometimes exceeds what hospitals can do on their own. Both also talk about working on projects with a broad future in mind. Here the complexity of the project comes into play, but also the nature of the readjustment process itself. 

The authors of the aforementioned study published in The Lancet invite us to be aware of the data, measure the impacts, and make decisions with them in mind. Remembering the ripple effect that healthcare can have on its providers helps to see how a “virtuous circle” can be created. The Global Green and Healthy Hospitals Agenda of the Global Green and Healthy Hospitals Network aims to replace harmful chemical substances, improve waste management, promote energy efficiency, reduce water consumption, and design greener hospitals.

Making adjustments has direct effects. “We stopped emitting tons of CO2 into the atmosphere,” Reneses says. The health of the planet is also the health of the people who live on it.


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