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Yale Workshop to Address the Environmental Footprint of Clinical Care

The U.S. healthcare system is responsible for significant portions of the nation’s pollution emissions, indirectly harming the very patients it seeks to serve.

However, these health damages are currently unreported and largely unrecognized. A first-of-its-kind workshop on environmental sustainability in clinical care taking place April 6–8 at Yale will seek to address this issue. The workshop is funded by the Yale School of Public Health, the Yale School of Medicine, the Yale School of Nursing, New York University, and the National Science Foundation.

Co-organized by Yale’s Dr. Jodi Sherman and Dr. Cassandra Thiel, New York University, the workshop will bring together around 50 experts in medicine and sustainability engineering, to share their knowledge on issues related to resource consumption and environmental emissions within medicine and healthcare services.

A study by Dr. Sherman, and Dr. Matthew Eckelman, Northeastern University, found that in 2013, the U.S. healthcare system was responsible for an estimated 12% of the nation’s acid rain, 10% of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, 10% of the nation’s smog formation, and 9% of the nation’s respiratory disease from particulate matter. Health damages from non-greenhouse gas pollutants were estimated at 470,000 Disability-Adjusted Life Years (DALYs)—a measure of years of healthy life lost. A later study by the same authors found that greenhouse gas disease burden increased this number to 617,000 DALYs lost annually.

This indirect disease burden from healthcare pollution is proportional to the 44,000–98,000 Americans who die in hospitals each year from preventable medical errors, as first reported in the Institute of Medicine’s “To Err is Human” report that sparked the patient safety movement. Sherman hopes for an expanded view of what we mean by patient safety that includes protection of public health.

Despite this significant impact, efforts to address the public health burden of healthcare emissions and resource consumption are limited.

The workshop provides a path forward. Participation is by invitation only and includes a group of international experts in the fields of engineering, sustainability science, clinical care, public health, and health systems management. Attendees will use their expertise to shape the direction of future research in the field, identifying gaps and priorities.

Other key deliverables will include a strategic action plan for developing tools to support clinical and health administration decision-makers; and a White Paper and peer-reviewed publication that summarize the outcomes of the workshop, all framed in terms of their impact on healthcare quality, safety, and value.

Sherman says that the workshop will function as a think tank and hopes attendees will form an ongoing working group.

At Yale, efforts are underway to address the environmental impact of healthcare facilities on campus. The Yale Office of Sustainability is currently working to develop a set of green clinical guidelines to advance sustainable practices throughout the planning and operation of Yale’s clinical spaces, as well as occupant behavior.