Primum non nocere. The Latin phrase, meaning “First, do no harm,” is a core tenet taught to aspiring medical professionals.
It most commonly applies to physicians to ensure they do nothing that could potentially hurt a patient, but the healthcare sector has begun applying it in a broader context -- specifically, to fight climate change.
Hospitals and health systems are major vessels of medical waste and massive consumers of energy. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, they are some of the most “complex and energy-intensive facilities” in the country. Major heating and lighting needs, 24/7 occupancy, and large, energy-sucking machines lead hospitals to have more than 2.5 times the energy intensity and carbon dioxide emissions of commercial office buildings.
Health Care Without Harm has helped organize more than 600 hospitals and health systems around the “First, do no harm” motto through the Healthier Hospitals Initiative -- a coalition designed to improve environmental health and sustainability in the sector.
Jeff Thompson leads Gundersen Health System, based in La Crosse, Wis., one of the vanguard hospitals within HHI. Thompson and his team have set one of the most ambitious energy goals of any health system in the country -- by 2014, Gundersen plans to be energy independent, producing all the energy it needs on its own.
Last month, the Obama administration honored both Thompson and Gary Cohen, president and co-founder of Health Care Without Harm, as “Champions of Change.” They were two of 11 honorees within healthcare who have taken direct measures to cut carbon pollution, protect public health and raise awareness on the effects of climate change.
“Years ago, you would rarely hear ‘healthcare’ and ‘climate change’ in the same sentence,” Thompson said. “This event gave us a chance to show how hospitals can move out of that paradigm and how are we are responsible for the health and well-being of our community.”
Midwest Energy News was able to speak to Thompson recently. In the following interview, edited for clarity and length, he shared how his organization is leading the charge in healthcare sustainability and why other hospitals can do the same.