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Shrinking Hospitals' Ecological Footprints

Today, more and more hospitals are mindful of the important link between the healing process and a healing environment. A more natural environment, with natural light and colours, reduces stress levels for patients. That promotes healing.

Healing environments matter, but what about the larger natural environment? Hospitals are so often focused on what goes on within their walls, that they pay little attention to the impact they have on the outside natural environment.

The Lancet Climate Change Commission came to the conclusion that climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century. As leaders in health and healing, hospitals need to make a serious commitment to “do no harm,” not only to patients under their care, but also to their communities and to the planet.

Hospitals have big ecological footprints. An ecological footprint is the “total area of productive land and water required on a continuous basis to produce the resources consumed and to assimilate the wastes produced by a specified population.”

In other words, it is a measure of human demand on the Earth’s ecosystems, the amount of natural capital used each year. It is estimated that, altogether, Nova Scotia hospitals’ ecological footprint represents about half the provincial land mass.

Intensive, 24-7 energy use, food production, transportation, waste management, chemical use and procurement methods all need to change to reduce hospitals’ecological footprints. There is an urgent need for hospitals to adopt strategies that reduce the harm they are causing to the planet.

In particular, hospitals can start by reducing the amount of energy they use and the amount of greenhouse gases they are discharging into the atmosphere each day. New approaches such as continuously fine-tuning building management computer systems (recommissioning), retrofitting energy intensive equipment and introducing new, renewable energy sources can all help hospitals do this.

But first there needs to be a commitment from leadership at the provincial, regional and local levels. And that commitment needs to be followed by engagement, not only of leaders, but of professionals and staff.

Energy management needs to move out of the basement and into the boardrooms. Hospitals have a moral duty to show leadership by reducing their carbon emissions and ecological footprints.

Some jurisdictions in Canada, such as British Columbia, are showing leadership by mandating carbon-reduction targets for hospitals and other public buildings. But more can be done.

As a city, Copenhagen has assumed its share of the responsibility for climate change. It has set the goal of becoming the world’s first carbon-neutral capital by 2025, showing that it is possible to combine growth, development and increased quality of life with the reduction of CO2 emissions.

The city wants to “find solutions that are smarter, greener, healthier and more profitable.” Hospitals need to do the same. They need to introduce strategies that are smarter, greener, healthier.

It’s not only good for the population and the planet; it’s good for their finances. Those savings can be reinvested in patient-care improvements.

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