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The healthcare industry has made enormous strides toward becoming more energy efficient in recent years. Yet with the risk of airborne diseases, such as COVID-19, on the rise, it is important to evaluate some of these energy efficiency modifications to HVAC systems and air balancing/handling processes. In some instances, reducing energy expenditure may lead to increased instances of airborne disease transmission. 

The environmental cost of healthcare

Hospitals have some of the largest carbon footprints in the world, so much so that Health Care Without Harm estimated that if the global healthcare industry were a country, it would have the fifth highest greenhouse gas emissions.

It is no wonder, then, that many healthcare organizations are committing to more sustainable practices and attempting to become carbon-neutral. In 2020, Kaiser Permanente became the first health system in the United States to achieve carbon neutral status, effectively eliminating its 800,000-ton annual carbon footprint.  

While efforts like these are admirable, some energy efficiency policies at healthcare facilities may increase infection risk, particularly airborne infection risk, to patients, staff and visitors.

Reduced ventilation = higher risk

After two years of living through a global pandemic, the average adult understands the health risks associated with low ventilation, crowded indoor spaces, and shared air. However, some of the energy efficiency recommendations in place for hospitals and healthcare facilities seem to directly refute what is now conventional wisdom. 

For example, the Energy Star energy efficiency program states that reducing operating and procedure room ventilation rates can lower utility bills and increase energy efficiency. However, increased airflow in these types of rooms is critical to preventing airborne infections.

It is vital for hospitals to ensure certain areas are “negative pressure,” meaning more air is entering the room than is leaving the room. It is also crucial to make sure the HVAC systems are tested and balanced properly so that improper airflow does not contribute to infection risk. 

The rise of hospital acquired infections

Healthcare settings are supposed to be places of healing and recovery. However, when patients, staff or visitors contract an illness or disease because of transmission within a healthcare facility, it is known as a healthcare acquired infection (HAI). At any given time, 1 in 31 hospital patients has an HAI, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Infection.

While HAI rates had been declining since 2015, they rose sharply in 2020, largely as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the CDC.

It is crucial that healthcare facilities implementing energy saving measures take the entire facility and ventilation system into consideration when making changes. Otherwise, they may be jeopardizing the health and safety of building occupants.

Life Balance Technologies has developed an integrated solution for air balance auditing that reviews 100 percent of a facility for infection risk. The Life Balance process integrates the mechanical design, HVAC inventory, room application, and industry standards to audit the infection control parameters of an entire building. To learn more about this innovative technology, visit our Software page.