Healthcare in America, including activities such as hospital care, scientific research, and the production and distribution of pharmaceutical drugs, was found to produce 8% of the country’s total carbon dioxide output despite accounting for 16% of the U.S. gross domestic product. Jeanette Chung, PhD, a research associate in the Section of Hospital Medicine at the University of Chicago and the study’s lead author, said that she hoped the study would draw the attention of the healthcare industry to its environmental impact.
“In this country, the primary focus is on issues surrounding patient safety, healthcare quality, and cost containment at this current point in time. The healthcare sector, in general, may be a bit slower than other sectors to put this on their radar screen,” Chung said. “But given the focus on healthcare policy and environmental policy, it might be interesting—if not wise—to start accounting for environmental externalities in healthcare.”
“The question is, Are there large opportunities to improve efficiency in healthcare that can also have an impact on the environment?” said study co-author David Meltzer, MD, PhD, chief of the Section of Hospital Medicine, associate professor in the Department of Medicine, the Harris School of Public Policy and the Department of Economics. “If one sector is very large, even if it’s somewhat less carbon-intensive than others, simply the fact that it’s large means it’s a big target, and that’s the case with healthcare.”
Chung and Meltzer calculated the carbon footprint using 2007 healthcare spending and a model of environmental impact, called the environmental input-output life cycle assessment (EIOLCA) model, developed by the Green Design Institute at Carnegie-Mellon University.
The study assessed direct environmental effects of healthcare activities, as well as indirect effects capturing emissions generated in the production and distribution of commodities used by the healthcare sector. The EIOLCA model was then applied to estimate the carbon intensity of each dollar of commodity produced by the healthcare industry, based on emissions of various greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and chlorofluorocarbons.
The analysis found that hospitals were by far the largest contributor of carbon emissions in the healthcare sector, which the authors attributed to the high energy demands needed for temperature control, ventilation, and lighting in large hospital buildings. Surprisingly, the second largest healthcare contributor to the overall carbon footprint was the pharmaceutical industry, a finding Meltzer attributed to the high costs of manufacturing and researching drugs combined with transportation costs associated with distribution.
Chung and Meltzer hoped that their analysis, published as a letter in the prestigious medical journal, would draw the attention of the healthcare industry to areas where environmental improvements can be made.
The work was funded by grants from the Hospital Medicine and Economics Center for Education and Research in Therapeutics and the National Institute of Aging.
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