For the U.S. healthcare community, which lives by the prime directive “first do no harm,” climate change presents a dilemma.

Healthcare accounts for eight percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions (GhGs), which makes it a much bigger factor in the emissions reduction effort than the much-discussed air travel industry emissions, which account for three percent of U.S. GhGs.

“The mission of healthcare is to protect human health,” Michael Berg, the Eco-Health Footprint project lead with Berg and Associates said, “but through the environmental impacts of the industry, it’s also a contributor to the decline of environmental health.”

Impacts of climate change on human health, Berg said, include respiratory disease, pulmonary disease, cancer, heat stroke, waterborne diseases, malnutrition, obesity and diabetes. Climate change also impacts communities, leading to political conflicts, violence, social dislocation, inflation, poverty, unemployment and limited access to healthcare -- all of which lead back to the human impacts.

“It creates this interesting relationship,” Berg said. “Human health depends on environmental health and environmental health is currently threatening human health.”

Berg moderated a healthcare and climate change panel at VerdeXchange, a business-to-business Los Angeles cleantech conference focused on the intersection between climate change and the greentech sectors. There was no healthcare provider on the panel and no healthcare provider in attendance.

Tellingly, the other panel members were Paul Holdredge, a GE Healthcare product professional, and Rachelle Wenger of Catholic Healthcare West business management. The audience was largely composed of business and management consultants.

“Healthcare is a business,” Berg explained,  “but it’s a very complex business.”

Charged with fulfilling the healthcare sector’s fundamental mission of delivering “safe, affordable and high-quality healthcare,” healthcare business management is beginning to wonder how they can do that in an emissions-constrained world with resources ranging from traditional energy to potable water growing ever more limited and costly.

A 2010 Johnson Controls study found that almost a third of healthcare businesses are paying “a lot more attention” to energy efficiency, whereas less than a quarter of them were doing so in 2008. Ten percent more healthcare businesses saw the value of investing in energy efficiency in 2009 than did the year before.

The first and most important place for healthcare -- which accounts for seventeen percent of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) -- to look for efficiencies and emissions-cutting potential is its supply chain, which, Berg said, is responsible for the overwhelmingly largest part, perhaps 60 percent, of the sector’s GhGs. Of the supply chain, the pharmaceutical industry is by far the biggest part of the carbon footprint.

The healthcare sector spent $2.4 trillion in 2008, “a huge amount of purchasing power,” Berg said. For entrepreneurs with climate- and environment-friendly goods and services that can meet supply chain needs, it is a barely tapped opportunity.

Berg said climate change-conscious healthcare sector alliances are emerging, such as the Healthier Hospitals Initiative, a partnership between Health Care Without Harm, Practice Greenhealth and 250 hospitals, five percent of the U.S. hospital market, including Kaiser Permanente, Catholic Healthcare West, Hospital Corporation of America, Partners Healthcare and MedStar.

The initiative has formally designated an agenda, Berg noted. It offers a laundry list of opportunities for providers who can fill hospital needs ranging from healthy foods to toxic waste disposal without enlarging the hospitals’ carbon footprints.

Wenger said Catholic Healthcare West (CHW) is 41 hospitals, the eighth-biggest health care system in the U.S., as well as the biggest not-for-profit system in California and the biggest Medi-Cal provider in the state. “We’re a pretty good microcosm of what healthcare looks like throughout the country,” she said. 

CHW management is excited about finding ways to cut their emissions and do things in a more sustainable way while maintaining the quality of care, Wenger said. “I couldn’t have been more thrilled to take the whole debate around healthcare reform and couple that with where our heart was around advancing environmental health and community health initiatives.”

Wenger described the effort it took for CHW to get less toxic IV bags from a cooperative supplier. “We worked really hard with them for over seven years,” she said. As soon as CHW got the product they wanted, they signed a multi-year contract. “Soon after that, we saw the market absolutely shift.” CHW started letting business associates know the IV bags were available and quickly “saw a shift in the way they were buying products.”

First message to entrepreneurs: find a buyer with a need, work with them to fill it and become a market leader. Second message: the healthcare industry needs a lot of new, climate-friendly supplies.

GE Healthcare’s challenge, Holdredge said, begins with regulatory compliance and affordably maintaining the quality of care, but “at the same time, we need to go forward and make products that contribute to sustainability and lower our environmental footprint.”

Among GE’s newest tools to achieve its objectives, Holdredge said, is lifecycle assessment (LCA). “We think it can be very useful to be directional about where we put the right efforts,” Holdredge said.

GE’s Ecomagination and Healthymagination initiatives, Holdredge added, help the company “frame products that are both better for the environment and better for our customers.”