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The Greening of Health Care?

January 9, 2010

The January 7 – 13 issue of the Grand Rapids Business Journal (GRBJ) has a short interview with Gary Cohen, founder and director of Health Care Without Harm. Cohen was in Grand Rapids for a day-long event where he spoke to Spectrum Health staff.

Before the interview begins, the GRBJ reporter tells readers that there is a growing movement “advocating for environmental responsibility in health care.” The article states that there are 1,000 hospitals and health care systems groups, which have joined a networking group called Practice Greenhealth.

One of the members of Practice Greenhealth is Hospital Corporation of America, the nation’s largest health system, with 163 hospitals in 20 states. Some of the goals and objectives that this network of hospitals and health systems in the country are advocating for are a reduction in their use of toxic chemicals, more energy efficient buildings, increased recycling, and serving healthier food.

The interview with Cohen explores some of these issues, but on a very superficial level. Cohen talks about the need for hospitals to recycle, but never states what it is they can and should recycle. Hospitals generate a tremendous amount of waste, particularly hazardous waste.

The only specific issue that Cohen addressed in this interview was the environmental impact of pharmaceuticals. When you take prescribed drugs much of what is contained in the drug leave your body when you urinate, which means that these drugs end up in the water system and eventually into the soil. According to Derrick Jensen, author of What We Leave Behind, the pharmaceuticals that end up in our ecosystems cause tremendous harm to the water, soil, plants, animals and human who are increasingly being saturated with these drugs.

This underscores an important point about the limited view of groups such as PracticeGreenhealth. It seems that these hospitals and health industry sectors can not just focus on recycling and making their buildings LEED certified, they must see the inter-relatedness of all the environmental problems we face and how it impacts human health. In other words, health care providers should not just be concerned with their own organizational sustainability efforts, they must confront and challenge any industry, which pollutes or contaminates the environment.

 For instance, it would have greater impact for health care providers to condemn the production and use of chemical pesticides worldwide. Chemical pesticides are a leading cause of cancer, so instead of just treating cancer patients why not put your efforts into stopping the causes of cancer?

Another area where health care systems should be a leader is in the reduction of carbon, which causes global warming. Global warming has increased poor air quality, the increase of asthma and the spread of more infectious diseases worldwide. Since global warming has serious health consequences, wouldn’t it make sense for the health care industry to confront the major carbon producers? This would mean that hospitals should challenge the use of coal, both mining and burning. For that matter they should condemn the mining and use of uranium for nuclear energy production. Health care systems might even want to stand against the use of depleted uranium that the US military has put into weapons that have been used since the early 90’s and has resulted in the deaths of countless thousands around the world.

Some people might say that these are political questions that should be left to politicians and not doctors and hospitals. However, unless we address the root causes of both health and environmental problems everything else we do seems to be just putting a bandage on deep wound. Besides, doesn’t the Hippocratic oath say, “first do no harm.”

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