Massachusetts General Hospital has launched a new Center for the Environment and Health aimed at integrating sustainability into all aspects of the Mass General mission — clinical care, education, research and community health — to advocate for and improve the environmental health of the hospital, as well as the health and well-being of the communities it serves.
“It is our moral imperative to safeguard and improve the health of our communities by addressing the environmental impact of our operations and clinical decision making.”
“The health care sector is responsible for a substantial amount of environmental pollution and contributions to climate change,” says Jonathan E. Slutzman, MD, a Mass General Emergency Department physician and the center’s director and medical director for environmental sustainability. “If the U.S. health care system were its own country, it would be the 13th largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world — more than the entire United Kingdom. It is our moral imperative to safeguard and improve the health of our communities by addressing the environmental impact of our operations and clinical decision making.”
A Hospital-Wide Commitment
The new center is the latest step in the hospital’s decades-long commitment to supporting sustainability programs at every level of the institution. Currently, nearly 100% of the electricity Mass General uses comes from renewable sources, and it participates in numerous waste reduction programs and strives to purchase primarily environmentally preferable products. The Center for the Environment and Health is one of many recent initiatives stemming from Mass General’s Sustainability Committee — created in 2019 and comprised of leaders from all areas of hospital operations — which identifies, reviews and launches short- and long-term improvement efforts.
“Climate change is an immediate threat to human health, and environmental pollution directly contributes to respiratory illness and kidney, cardiovascular and cerebrovascular diseases,” says Regina LaRocque, MD, MPH, a physician-researcher in the Mass General Infectious Diseases Division and one of the center’s associate directors. “As a hospital, we have an obligation to address these issues through education, research and advocacy, and we also need to work hard to reduce our own environmental footprint.”
Role of the New Center
In its new Stewardship Plan, the center has outlined its major goals, including a commitment to ensuring that staff, patients and community members more fully understand the link between the climate, environment and human health. Research also will play a key role in the new center’s work, promoting the gathering of appropriate data, disseminating new knowledge and learning the best ways to approach environmental issues from a health care perspective.
A few immediate goals of the center are to:
- Complete an institutional environmental footprint assessment to improve performance.
- Establish an ongoing Grand Rounds series to enable hospital experts, alongside worldwide leaders, to discuss, educate and improve climate change, health and health care sustainability efforts.
- Eliminate DEHP-containing clinical care products. DEHP is a chemical added to many plastics that may cause adverse health effects.
- Eliminate unnecessary antibiotics from food the hospital serves and increase the fraction of plant-based foods and meals on campus.
Nutrition and Food Services
“For years we have looked at and implemented new ways to make our hospital more sustainable,” says Joan Shea, director of Nutrition and Food Services. “After installing two water dispensers in the cafeteria of our main campus, we reduced our purchasing of plastic bottles of spring water by 31,200 in 2020. In addition, we purchased 200,000 fewer straws after adding a new straw-less cover to the cold beverage options at two of our coffee shop locations. We also composted 523 tons of organic waste from our cafeterias last year, bringing our total to 2,836 tons since the hospital introduced its composting program.”
“After years of working to improve our environmental footprint and enhance our practices, we are proud to launch this dedicated center that will be the conduit to bettering our practices, our community and our planet.”
The hospital’s Nutrition and Food Services staff also are working to introduce more plant-based and vegan options to its menus. Several other areas of the institution are continuing to examine and advance efforts to become more sustainable.
“We continue to look for opportunities within our supply chain to become better stewards of our environment, including expanding our reprocessing program within our operating rooms and procedural areas, identifying and eliminating products that contain PVC and DEHP and working with our distributor to de-case and recycle all cardboard from inbound supplies,” says Ed Raeke, director of Materials Management. “Our next step in this journey will be to partner with our vendors to establish sustainability goals for manufacturing responsibly that will hopefully become the framework for all of our future business opportunities.”
Involving the Broader Community
In addition to looking inward at the hospital’s own opportunities to enact meaningful change, the center aims to engage members of the community in its efforts to advance environmental and human health.
“Beyond the important mission of making hospital operations more sustainable, our mission also encompasses encouraging our community in the health care sector to collect new data to add to the literature, to help us contribute to a trend that can inform others about what works best in this arena,” says Ann-Christine Duhaime, MD, a pediatric neurosurgeon at MassGeneral Hospital for Children and the center’s associate director for research and publication. “Additionally, our mission includes communicating to staff and patients clear data about what pro-environmental behaviors matter most in their lives outside of health care, both on the individual and collective scale.”
“After years of working to improve our environmental footprint and enhance our practices, we are proud to launch this dedicated center that will be the conduit to bettering our practices, our community and our planet,” says Peter L. Slavin, MD, Mass General president.
Learn more about the Mass General Center for the Environment and Health.
This story first appeared on the Mass General news page.
The center will host its first symposium on climate, the environment, and health, entitled “Climate Change: Our Healthcare System, Our Patients, and You” on Wednesday, May 26, at 8:30 am. The keynote address will be given by Renee Salas, MD, MPH, MS, a Mass General Emergency Department physician. The virtual event will be open to the public. Register here.