Posted March 11, 2016
You climb up on the examination table, crinkling the blue paper drape as you settle in, and look around the room. Might as well, because the doctor is not yet in.
A stethoscope hangs on the back of the door. On the wall next to the door is a fire engine-red box used to dispose of sharp objects and other biomedical waste. On the wall near the exam table is a rack loaded with pointy black caps that fit on an otoscope, the gizmo a doctor uses to check your ears. Across the room on a table is a box of disposable face masks. On the shelf over the table are a number of plastic containers, including one with brown antiseptic Betadine inside. An IV bag dangles from a tall metal stand that’s parked in the corner.
The examination room is the gateway to healthcare in America – whether it’s in your doctor’s office, an urgent care facility or a hospital ER. Underlying them all: energy. That exam room would be pretty bare without products made from petroleum.
Ethylene is in the polyvinyl chloride tubing of the stethoscope. The plastic in the sharps box, the IV bag and the otoscope caps more than likely is made of petroleum-based chemicals. Same for the bottle that holds the Betadine – itself containing N-vinylpyrrolidone, made from acetylene, derived from oil. The filtering layer in the face masks may include polypropylene, another oil byproduct.
That’s just a quick spin around one exam room. Medical tools and technologies – from computer software to X-ray machines to ventilators to defibrillators and more – plus the power to run them and the high-tech facilities that house them, depend on energy.
More than 136 million people visit a hospital emergency room each year for treatment related to everything from high fevers to broken bones to major life-threatening conditions. Modern healthcare, available and effective, is based on energy. Lots of it. The nation’s largest 3,040 hospitals use more than 5 percent of the energy consumed by the entire commercial sector, despite only accounting for 2 percent of commercial floor space.
That usage is likely to grow as the nation’s baby boomers age into retirement and increasingly use medical services related to later-in-life situations. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that for the next decade the healthcare industry will grow at a faster rate than any occupation sector to help meet the needs of the United States’ graying population. That translates to 2.3 million new jobs in the healthcare sector, bigger and newer facilities and the need for more energy.
While it might not be surprising that hospitals and other medical facilities use energy in high volumes, supporting 24/7 care, what might be surprising is how the energy is used. The sector’s machines and technologies actually use only a sliver of the total energy coming into healthcare facilities. The vast majority of the energy intake is used for climate control, water heating and lighting.
Even hospitals in the warmest climate zones of the United States use a lot of their energy to keep properly heated, ranging from around 16 percent in the South to more than 40 percent in the North. The amount of energy used for heating healthcare facilities is rivaled only by that used for heating water, as on a national average each of these two processes consume about a quarter of the facilities’ energy, equaling 50 percent of total usage.
The type of energy used for heating rooms and water is overwhelmingly natural gas. Of the 3,040 large hospitals the U.S. Energy Information Administration surveyed, 2,240 of them use direct natural gas to power their primary heating systems, with another 610 relying on district heat systems, which is a community heat generation facility that provides piped in heat for multiple structures. Frequently, these district heating systems are powered by natural gas.
Hospital water heating systems are likewise largely powered by natural gas, with 2,253 of the surveyed systems using it to keep the facilities’ water piping hot. While electricity, fuel oil and district heat combined equal only about half of what natural gas provides for heating water.
The healthcare field also is a major user of electricity. In most hospitals and other related facilities, electricity is what keeps the lights on, the air cooled, refrigeration running, computers operating and medical imaging and monitoring devices functioning. About 43 percent goes to lighting, followed by 16 percent for ventilation systems and 14 percent for cooling systems. That means the remaining 27 percent does everything else, including running the technology that provides MRIs, CAT scans, other X-rays and monitoring and life-support systems.
This electricity is generated by primary energy sources, with natural gas moving into a leading role. EIA expects natural gas this year will fuel the largest share of electricity generation, 33 percent to coal’s 32 percent. It would be the first time natural gas provides more electricity generation than coal on an annual basis. EIA projects that natural gas use in electricity generation will continue to grow through 2040 – the last year of its forecast.
The healthcare system’s energy use extends beyond emergency rooms and diagnostic devices. Each year there are about 37 million calls for emergency medical help, most of them prompting the dispatch of one of the nation’s 81,000 emergency vehicles. Emergency ambulances, helicopters, airplanes and other vehicles need energy. Gasoline, diesel or even compressed natural gas are the fuels that transport 28 million people needing in-facility care to hospitals and other medical sites each year.
America’s healthcare system is second to none, and energy plays an important role in keeping it that way – properly caring for the 35 million people who stay in hospitals each year and the additional 125 million who annually use other healthcare services.
Keeping U.S. energy abundant and available to run the world’s leading healthcare sector requires the right leadership and the right policies – to access energy reserves and to foster safe, efficient energy development. Through their 2016 vote Americans can help ensure the country’s energy security. Our health depends on it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.