Why sustainability is the future of healthcare

Laura-Copeland-Final_600The once-distant threat of climate change is now a tangible reality impacting the health and well-being of populations and health systems. Extreme weather events, like flooding, heatwaves, and wildfires, damage critical infrastructure, disrupt operations, and limit the provision of health services. Worsening air quality fuels respiratory illnesses, placing a heavier burden on already strained hospitals. Additionally, climate change can lead to the spread of vector-borne diseases like dengue fever and Lyme disease, introducing new threats to public health. The mental health toll is significant as well, with climate anxiety and displacement leading to a rise in psychological issues 

These vulnerabilities also translate into a harsh financial reality. Healthcare costs are projected to rise due to increased patient numbers and resource demands associated with climate-related illnesses. Disruptions in critical medical supply chains caused by extreme weather events can further exacerbate these costs. The potential for insurance rate hikes due to climate-related health emergencies adds another layer of financial burden.  

As public awareness and concern increase, a critical question emerges: How can the healthcare sector adapt and lead the way toward a sustainable future? Prioritizing climate investments isn't just about being environmentally responsible; it's about safeguarding patient care and building a healthier tomorrow. 

The ideal state: a climate-smart healthcare system 

Healthcare is responsible for 4.6% of Canada’s total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, more than aviation and shipping. Sustainable practices offer a double win for healthcare leaders, protecting public health and generating a positive return on investment.  

Beyond updating and building new infrastructure, hospitals can make a significant impact through cost-effective initiatives. For instance: 

  • Using smart climate-control systems to conserve energy (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems account for as much as 44% of a commercial building’s total energy consumption) and, ultimately, reduce costs.   
  • Investing in disaster preparedness, virtual care, aging-in-place solutions, centralized patient flow centres, and data interoperability enhancements to strengthen climate resiliency and ensure seamless care continuity and coordination amid weather-related disruptions.  
  • Advancing waste management practices like recycling and composting to minimize environmental burden.  

The savings from these green efforts can help fund programs to improve patient care and the overall healthcare experience. By embracing comprehensive sustainability strategies, healthcare leaders can become environmental and fiscal stewards  

The ROI of going green: real-world examples of healthcare cost savings 

The financial viability of healthcare systems is paramount, and achieving sustainability goals can seem daunting in the face of budget and personnel constraints. However, the narrative that "green" initiatives always equate to higher costs is a myth. Many organizations have discovered significant cost savings through sustainability plans: 

  • In 2022, Humber River Health’s utility costs were $1,400,000 lower than Greening Health Care’s (a global program to help hospitals lower energy costs) top-quartile target. The Toronto hospital’s efficiency efforts are expected to produce additional savings of nearly $100 million over the next 30 years.  
  • A study by the Commonwealth Fund projected $5.4 billion in savings if all U.S. hospitals reduced energy consumption and waste and gained efficiencies in operating room practices.  

These examples, and many others, showcase the compelling case for energy efficiency in healthcare.  

Overcoming climate change challenges with data and technology 

Meaningful climate action by health care providers and health systems will require awareness of healthcare’s climate impacts and data to drive change. Clinicians and health systems need comprehensive climate-health data easily accessible and usable within health information and business systems to make more informed decisions around reducing the environmental impact of clinical care and enterprise-wide activities. Data can help organizations predict the effects of climate change and take proactive measures to prevent or minimize the damage. It can also enable organizations to benchmark, share best practices across the industry, create learning health systems, and motivate change. Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, released a report in 2022 that highlights the need for more research to understand the complete picture of climate impacts on health. In 2023, the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences launched a project to build and curate a web-based catalog of data sources, tools, methods, and other educational resources to link environmental and climate data.  

Organizations can also be mindful consumers of health IT and strive to create a circular economy of recycling, reducing, repurposing, and reusing as much as possible. While health technology has become integral to enabling more seamless and integrated care, we can choose to use health IT wisely by considering whether less carbon-intensive alternatives exist, assessing vendors on their carbon reduction plans, choosing energy efficient hardware, and using recycling programs to minimize the environmental impact of e-waste.  

As healthcare leaders develop and refine their sustainability plans, it’s helpful to consider the contextual factors related to sustainability, including relevant regulations, net-zero commitments, quality standards, and of course, healthcare’s fundamental mission to “do no harm.” 

Driving a sustainable future for healthcare 

Climate change is a pressing threat to healthcare, jeopardizing patient well-being and raising costs. Sustainability offers a path forward. By implementing practices like automated climate control, disaster preparedness, and telemedicine, healthcare leaders can safeguard patient health, reduce costs, and become environmental stewards. The financial benefits are real – hospitals are achieving significant cost savings through energy efficiency initiatives. Data and technology are powerful tools for tracking climate impacts and optimizing resource allocation. Partnering with a strategic consultant who has data analysis and technology implementation expertise can help healthcare organizations optimize resources and infrastructure to support a sustainable future. Now is the time to become architects of a climate-smart healthcare system – for the health of our communities and the financial future of our institutions. 


A new e-book from Nordic, “Patient-centered excellence for a new era of care,” is coming soon! Sign up now to get this useful resource delivered to your inbox and discover how healthcare leaders are embracing patient-centered care as a guiding focus across enterprise-wide initiatives to deliver results that align with clinical, operational, and financial priorities. 

Topics: featured, Patient-Centered Care

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