In October 2017, the days were getting shorter, kids were back in school, and the grape leaves in Northern California transformed the landscape into a color show reminiscent of a Monet painting. After an unseasonably warm summer, Bay Area residents waited for the promise of cooler months ahead. As always, many escaped the city for greener pastures and grape harvesting in rural California wine country. At that moment, however, disaster struck with the Napa Valley / Sonoma County fires.
The fires burned 145,000 acres over 23 days. Miles away, the iconic San Francisco skyline illuminated a hazy, umber orange and thick smoke blanketed Northern California with dangerously polluted air.
I worked for Stanford Health Care in Supply Chain optimization at a time before the general population gave any thought to supply chain shortages. Hundreds of thousands of people rushed to their local pharmacies for N95 masks to protect their families from the noxious air. Public supply dried up and the hospitals struggled to provide masks to their staff that needed them the most. This was my first time experiencing and mitigating the downwind impacts of a climate disaster.
Reducing hospital impacts on disasters caused by climate change
Extreme weather events are occurring more frequently, and each disaster offers insight on ways to improve preparedness. However, beyond sound preparation and response to disasters, hospitals can play an important role in reducing the future impacts of extreme weather through more sustainable planning, design and construction. It requires prioritizing using carbon capture products and working with net zero manufacturers, adding electric vehicles to the fleet and incentivizing employees to transition to electric vehicles. As thought leaders, we must boldly invest in climate-resilient design with health equity at the center.
A study published in The Lancet estimates that 13.6 % of all healthcare emissions come from fleet vehicles, and patient, staff, and visitor transit. Healthcare organizations can greatly reduce their direct emissions by transitioning to an entirely electric vehicle (EV) fleet coupled with zero emission, renewable energy. EVs have lower maintenance costs over the lifetime of the vehicle and can save upwards of $18,000 per vehicle in reduced maintenance costs.
Our society is quickly adopting lower-cost, electric vehicles and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal approved $7.5 billion to improve EV charging infrastructure. The funding is available to healthcare organizations that apply. Installing EV charging stations for patients, staff and visitors to use free of charge, or for a nominal fee, improves visitor satisfaction and extends the institution’s climate efforts equitably throughout the community. Healthcare organizations transitioning to an all-electric vehicle fleet can reduce their carbon footprint and save money.
Focus on building design and construction
Most of the carbon emissions from healthcare institutions come from the production, transportation, and disposal of physical products in the hospital. We have the ability to design climate-conscious buildings and hold manufacturing partners accountable to the same standards. To do that, we can ask questions like, “Does your company have a plan for net zero manufacturing?” “Do you have “end of life” recycling programs?”
Vizient helps members identify environmentally responsible vendor partners
One of Vizient’s supply partners is Interface Flooring, which offers carbon neutral and carbon negative flooring products. Inspired by the natural world, Interface Flooring shifted their perspective to see recycled carbon as a building block to create their products. They couple their embodied carbon products with manufacturing powered by renewable, emission-free energy to create a net negative impact - meaning a 10-feet-by-20-feet conference room with Interface carpet tiles can be seen as the equivalent of pulling 12 pounds of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere!
Another Vizient supply partner, ASSA ABLOY, joined the Science Based Target Initiative and commits to cutting their greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030. They plan to reach net zero by 2050 across the entire value chain and they publish a sustainability report for accountability. By partnering with climate conscious partners, we empower organizations to opt for sustainable operations.
More sustainable energy options
Healthcare design teams should consider predictive climate models to plan for excessive heat and/or changes in precipitation. Passive solar building design helps to collect sunlight and heat in the cooler months and keeps buildings cooler in the summer. Rainwater capture is a simple way to conserve water, and hospitals can upcycle water for maintaining green spaces. Landscape design should incorporate Indigenous, edible plant species that mirror the diverse, natural landscapes.
Another advantage to thoughtful landscape design is the impact on patients and staff. The Center for Health Care Design found statistically significant better outcomes for patients whose hospital room windows face a tree compared to patients facing an urban view. Investing in landscape architecture extends the healing space of the hospital and offers respite to staff, patients, and visitors.
Improving health equity through responsible climate action
The COVID-19 pandemic raised awareness of health inequities for communities of color and lower socioeconomic status. It is also true that people in those communities traditionally experience the most negative health impacts of environmental hazards caused by climate change. Equitable design, therefore, plays a role in health equity.
Designing spaces that provide equal consideration to the local ecology, local communities, and history will help mitigate the disproportionate impacts of regional extreme weather events.
Reimagining healthcare design to address climate change
Climate disruption threatens to undermine technological advances in healthcare, but thoughtful collaboration holds the key to improving our environment and surviving extreme weather. For too long, our communities have grown at the expense of the natural world. Healthcare systems must reach across the boundaries of traditional hospital design and build an integrated, resilient approach. We have the opportunity to boldly address the challenge of climate change by reimagining healthcare facilities in many ways, and the time to do it is now.
About the author: Annmarie Stauffer brings over twelve years of experience in the health care industry. Her areas of expertise include change management, supply chain management, and performance improvement through value analysis and lean process design. Annmarie is engaged in program management at Cedars-Sinai Health System in Los Angeles, California, whose campus master plans are valued at over $2 billion for the next 5 years. Annmarie has helped many hospitals and health systems realize over $20 million in savings through supply chain management, workforce and labor optimization. She works to grow the healthcare system by analyzing market trends and population needs, orienting members to their vast amounts of data and helping them develop reports that provide actionable analytics.