We are facing a climate emer-gency, and the United States is one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), so it’s essential for all industries to do their part in stopping the damage. Recently, two important members of the health care community, The New England Journal of Medicine and the National Academy of Medicine, called to the healthcare industry for “decarbonizing of the US Health Sector” — especially since a key maxim of the health profession — stemming from the Hippocratic Oath — is to “first, do no harm”. The New England Journal of Medicine discusses emissions from the healthcare industry and their detrimental effects on national and global health. The US healthcare sector is directly responsible for 8.5% of national carbon emissions, and 25% of emissions within the global health sector. The National Academy of Medicine has launched an “Action Collaborative on Decarbonizing the US Health Sector”. This collaborative has a four-prong approach, developed by professionals from the hospital industry, government officials, biomedical and pharmaceutical reps, and other health professionals from public or private practices. Their areas of focus involve reducing Scope 3 (indirect) emissions, identifying opportunities for linking performance and sustainability, expanding health professionals’ curricula on climate change, and developing sustainability metrics for industry and health systems.1
This initiative is incredibly relevant to the Lehigh Valley with major health care systems in the area. St. Luke’s and the Lehigh Valley health networks lead the field in the Valley, so it is important for them to recognize their climate impact and the impacts on people’s health. These systems are among the best in the nation, with St. Luke’s named among the top 100 hospital systems in the US, with its Bethlehem campus recognized as the top major teaching hospital in the country. Together they are responsible for over 27,000 jobs on 18 campuses and are the leading employers in the entire area. These phenomena aren’t unique to the Lehigh Valley; health care has become one of the biggest sources of jobs within the United States, dominating the job field in 14 states. The number of people working in the healthcare field has grown to 20% nationwide, with 80% of the workers being women (compared to 47% nationally in all other industries).2 As the largest employers in the Lehigh Valley, and a growing field in the country, hospital systems and the healthcare industry need to recognize climate change and its effects on human health — and take action to reduce their GHG emissions.
The hospital systems in the Lehigh Valley have taken steps towards sustainable actions, but there’s a long way to go. St. Luke’s, specifically the Anderson campus, was built to LEED standards, and has a walking path and employee garden. Additionally, part of the campus has an organic farm created in partnership with Rodale Institute, which grows fresh produce for meals in the hospital.3
Lehigh Valley Health Network doesn’t provide much information on their own efforts, but their VP of Operations received a sustainable energy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018 for his work with energy management and sustainability of the hospital’s operations. He worked to install over a thousand solar panels generating 300,000 kWh of electricity per year, and he helped to install solar thermal panels that generate all the hot water needed for the family lodging center at Cedar Crest. He also purchased vehicles operating on compressed natural gas, implemented a comprehensive recycling program, and had their food service provider grow produce at their garden plots and purchase locally-grown produce for meals in the hospital.4
Both hospitals have made progress towards sustainability in the past few years, but there is still a long way to go towards their operations. Kaiser Permanente, the largest healthcare system in the United States, has gone completely carbon neutral as of 2020, and is an amazing example to the other systems. By understanding the role healthcare plays in emissions, Kaiser Permanente has eliminated 800,000 annual tons of carbon emissions.5 Working with Health Care Without Harm, Kaiser Permanente has shared a guide to help other hospital systems reach climate neutrality. Not only have they balanced their carbon impact, but they are saving over two million dollars per year from their sustainable changes.6
St. Luke’s and LVHN can follow in their footsteps and work towards a healthy community by integrating climate emergency and other environmental effects. As climate change accelerates, more and more people are being affected. The hospital networks must take responsibility and make major reductions in GHG emissions — promoting health rather than treatments. Like many other growing industries with a large environ-mental impact, there is a direct need for sustainable behavior and practices in order to protect lives. The NAM’s announcements and plans towards decarbonizing the health care system shows support and urgency for these actions, and hopefully will lead to further sustainability within the field. Integrating climate change education into the healthcare industry as a whole can provide incredible advancements and necessary emissions responsibility. With the Lehigh Valley a major healthcare hub, these systems have the potential to bring about major sustainability efforts and be leaders if they take the initiative.
Margaux Petruska is a senior at Lehigh and will begin the Environmental Policy Masters this spring; she also worked as a Climate Action intern for the Alliance in the summer of 2021.