Patients, doctors and nurses at facilities in Escambia County, Florida, know what they’ll get when they turn on any faucet in the buildings — cold water. Yet nobody seems to mind, since the county saves about $14,000 a year by shutting off its hot water. It was John Lanza’s doing — he’s the county’s chief health officer — and it’s one of a few ideas he gleaned from My Green Doctor, a free online tool that helps medical facilities use less energy.
“You don’t need warm water to wash your hands, just running water, perhaps some soap and — most importantly — hand movements,” Lanza said. “Numerous studies have found this to be true. The key component of hand-washing that prevents infection is hand friction. Of course, the downside is in the winter, when everyone would rather wash their hands with warm water.”
Lanza — himself a home recycler and composter –introduced his conservation philosophy to the workplace several years ago, and eventually turned to My Green Doctor (MGD) for additional help. “The MGD program gave us the template to implement our program, and [helped] us accomplish our green initiatives,” he said.
Escambia County is not alone. A growing number of hospitals and other healthcare facilities in this country and overseas, in fact, have been adopting practices to shrink their carbon footprint. They are conserving energy, recognizing how much the health industry adds to the carbon pollution that drives global warming.
Healthcare generates considerable waste by tossing disposable gowns, caps, booties, gloves and blankets, and using resources such as water, chemicals, paper and plastic, not to mention the energy that powers machines needed for diagnosis and in surgery. The healthcare sector, in fact, accounts for ten percent of carbon pollution in the United States, according to one study. My Green Doctor wants to bring that number down.
“It’s something that most people would like for their office, but don’t know how to even get started,” said Todd Sack, MGD’s editor who also is a part-time gastroenterologist in a free clinic for the uninsured in Jacksonville. “We have been helping offices go green for five years, making it easy, profitable and even fun.” He describes MGD as “the most comprehensive environmental sustainability service anywhere.”
My Green Doctor is a joint project of the Florida Medical Association, the World Medical Association, the International Federation of Medical Student Associations, the Florida Academy of Family Physicians, and Physicians for Social Responsibility, Sack explained. These groups don’t fund the online service. Rather, they “share this service with their members and to help get the word out,” Sack said.
The website is written by physicians, peer-reviewed, evidence-based and nonpartisan, he said. More than 300 offices across 26 states have used the program, Sack said. “Most offices save money with the first meeting, and… a typical American medical office will save around $2,000 per doctor per year, plus many other benefits,” he said.
In Escambia, their conservation efforts have saved more than $20,000 annually by installing lighting controls and replacements, sensors on faucets and paper towel dispensers, HVAV temperature controls and a very active recycling program, Lanza said. “Lowering carbon emission and encouraging energy efficiency are both related to public health,” he said.
Moreover, the health department created a program to dispose of unused drugs — they are returned to the county’s central pharmacy or to the original vendor — so they don’t end up in the solid waste stream or flushed into the sewage system. Also, it told its employees to remove all their personal appliances, including coffee pots, personal heaters and other devices, except for small fans. “These not only consumed electricity, but were a fire hazard,” Lanza said.
Sack pointed out that different fields of medicine, as well as different locations, require individual approaches. “People and cultures vary,” he said. “Each community deals differently with resources. For example, recycling and disposal of wastes…are handled differently from town to town. Access to clean, renewable energy … is quite different from region to region.”
To be sure, MGD saves money, but it also offers an opportunity to share these concepts with colleagues, patients, families and others in the community, Sack said. Patients spend a lot of time waiting around in medical offices. He asked, “Why not use some of this time to provide ideas on wise energy and water use, safe approaches to chemicals, transportation choices, recycling, and healthy foods?”
Marlene Cimons writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture