There are many ironies of the term “health care” as currently used, especially in the US. Not the least is that actually keeping people healthy is financially punished. But an irony that is not as often discussed is the enormous adverse environmental impact that hospitals and other medical facilities typically have. For example, hospitals produce nearly 12,000 tons of waste per day, an average of 26 pounds per bed. They are also major consumers of water and energy. Hospitals are among the most energy-intensive facilities; they account for 8% of all of the nation’s energy use. The resulting waste and emissions of carbon and other pollutants adversely affect the health of a community, in the name of providing health care.
Some systems are working to change that. In October, Gundersen Lutheran Health System in La Crosse, WI, became the first health system in the US to be energy independent, generating more energy than it consumed. In 2008, Dr. Jeff Thompson, Gundersen CEO (and a pediatrician!) set a goal of energy neutrality as way to reduce cost and lower the negative impact of the facility on the health of the community. They achieved this through a combination of conservation (a 40% reduction in energy use, saving roughly $2 million a year to the system despite a 25% increase in the size of the facility over the same time) and development of renewable, non-polluting energy sources like geothermal, wind, and biomass, through both local projects and regional partnerships.
We want the kids in Wisconsin to be the healthiest in the country. This won’t happen without, among other things, a healthy environment. Gundersen Lutheran is doing its part to ensure that. What more could we do?