UF Health strives for sustainability in the hospital setting
Health care providers, staff at the College of Medicine, UF Health Shands Hospital champion eco-friendly choices
Jan. 19, 2023 — In the world of medicine, hospitals are a mecca of care. Patients seek and receive treatment any time of day or night, and unlike private practices and other commercial buildings, hospitals house a wide variety of services that run nonstop.
Behind it all is extensive infrastructure ensuring resources like energy, water, waste management, sterilized tools, patient meals and medications meet demand to save lives. But these same resources also contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.
According to Health Care’s Climate Footprint, a 2019 report by Arup and Health Care Without Harm, the health care industry accounts for roughly 8% of annual emissions in the U.S. Worldwide, health care has a climate footprint of two gigatons of carbon dioxide each year, or over 4% of net global emissions. If health care were a country, the report details, it would be the fifth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world.
At the University of Florida College of Medicine and UF Health Shands, faculty and staff have prioritized sustainability for years, eliminating waste, rehauling procedures and discovering new opportunities to be eco-friendly each step of the way.
“As clinicians, we vow to take care of our patients and we vow to do no harm; I always say we should do no harm not only to our patients but to the environment as well,” said Lauren Berkow, M.D., FASA, a professor of anesthesiology and chief of the division of neuroanesthesiology at UF. “Clinicians play a really important role in educating our patients about how to be healthier and more sustainable, and we need to practice it ourselves and help the hospital reduce its carbon footprint.”
Berkow has led sustainability efforts at UF Health for seven years, but she was first introduced to the topic at an anesthesiology lecture while working at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. At the time, she said, climate change was not yet a major topic of discussion for the public. But after she heard how the inhaled gases used to keep patients asleep during surgery were also greenhouse gases, she wanted to learn more.
Berkow joined an environmental task force with the American Society of Anesthesiologists and implemented what she learned at Johns Hopkins. She also encouraged UF to join Practice Greenhealth, a nonprofit organization that partners with hospitals to be more sustainable, and implemented quality improvement projects in the operating room to separate the many kinds of operating room trash into different bins to increase recycling and decrease the amount of waste sent to a landfill or incinerator.
Now, she is a clinical sustainability champion at UF and co-chair of the UF Health Sustainability Committee with Tedd Comerford, associate vice president of supply chain services at UF Health Shands. Their leadership, along with support and dedication from the UF Office of Sustainability and stakeholders throughout the academic health center, has helped increase awareness of eco-friendly activities, save money and protect the environment.
In her specialty, Berkow said, one significant change at UF Health Shands has been the removal of desflurane, one of the most common but harmful anesthetic gases. When a patient is given inhaled anesthetics, about 95% is exhaled as waste gas and vented out of the hospital, according to Practice Greenhealth. This contributes significantly to hospitals’ greenhouse gas emissions, and desflurane is especially problematic, as it has the highest global warming potential of the three available inhaled anesthetic gases used for patient care in the U.S.
Using a lower flow of anesthetic gas for patients also helps reduce emissions, Berkow said. In October, her colleagues, UF’s Center for Experiential Learning and Simulation, the American Society of Anesthesiologists and the Anesthesia Patient Safety Foundation launched a new educational module and simulator to teach low-flow anesthesia to any anesthesia provider at no cost. The module is available for continuing medical education credit, Berkow said, and she plans to champion it at UF this year.
On a broader scale at UF Health, initiatives to become more eco-friendly include:
Composting and donating excess food to local schools and businesses, like The Reichert House Youth Academy
Reusing hospital water for irrigation
Increasing signage for and separating different trash types into appropriate bins
Printing with black and white ink, on both sides of paper and requiring passcodes
Constructing new hospital buildings with many windows to harness natural light
Installing motion-sensor water faucets that turn off automatically
Fast facts on impact
By disposing of hospital sharps, like used needles, in reusable Stericycle collection containers rather than single-use containers, UF Health Shands eliminates an estimated 274,529 pounds of greenhouse gases annually
This is equivalent to the amount of carbon sequestered by over 150 acres of forest or used by 15 homes and 27 passenger vehicles in a year
Through printing changes over the last two years, UF Health Shands has reduced 16 million prints per year
This equates to 1.6 million gallons of water conserved, 1,920 trees still standing or 80 tons of geenhouse gas emissions prevented
“Hospitals doing their part to reduce their carbon footprint can make a huge impact,” Berkow said.
In recognition of that impact, UF Health Shands Hospital has received environmental excellence awards from Practice Greenhealth, the nation’s leading organization dedicated to environmental sustainability in health care, for four years in a row.
Most recently in 2022, the hospital won twice, earning the Practice Greenhealth Greening the Operating Room Award, which honors facilities that have made substantial progress in reducing the impact of the surgical environment, and the Practice Greenhealth Emerald Award, which recognizes the top 20% of health care facilities setting the standard for sustainability.
“While great awards, they have also been a great aid to monitor the gains we have established with our team and with our organization on awareness, accomplishment and a resulting reduction in our carbon footprint,” Comerford said.
In 2023, he plans to explore electric or hybrid vehicles for UF Health’s fleet and expanding sustainability resources at any future UF Health locations.
“A lot of other initiatives in place, but we continue to expand how to reduce our carbon footprint,” he said. “We’re still not done.”