4 Ways Radiology Can Reduce Its Climate Change Impact

Whitney J. Palmer

Radiology’s contribution to climate change is larger than you might think, but that can be mitigated.

Talk of climate change brings to mind images of exhaust-belching cars and hazy skies – not radiology. But, the industry plays a bigger role than you might anticipate, and the time to reduce that impact is now, say industry leaders.

That’s the message behind a call-to-action statement that will be published March 12 in the Journal of the American College of Radiology by a team of industry experts, including Geraldine McGinty, M.D., MBA, president of the American College of Radiology (ACR).

“Radiology is well positioned to spearhead climate change action in our practices and the healthcare system at large,” the team wrote. “Addressing climate change provides an opportunity to improve healthcare delivery and increase value of care using a different problem-solving approach.”

Based on current data from the Yale University School of Medicine, 10 percent of the nation’s carbon emissions, as well as 9 percent of harmful non-greenhouse air pollutants, come from the U.S. healthcare system. And, radiology can be a significant contributor to an individual hospital’s energy use – for example, at one hospital in Switzerland, the team said, their three CT and four MRI scanners accounted for 4 percent of the facility’s overall energy use.

But, the push to be more environmentally conscious isn’t just coming from within the industry. This is a patient priority, as well. According to a survey conducted in the United Kingdom, they said, 92 percent of patients also consider sustainable healthcare operations to be important.

So, what can the industry do to reduce its carbon footprint and be better environmental stewards? A noticeable impact can be achieved by addressing four key areas, the team said.

Substantial energy use: Radiology consumes a great deal of energy. In one year alone, cumulative consumption from one CT scanner can equal what is used by five four-person households. A single MRI uses more – almost as much as 26 such households. When feasible, the team suggested, opt for ultrasound because, alongside being cheaper and using less radiation, it has a lower environment impact. In addition, using artificial intelligence to truncate MRI protocols can also lower energy use. You can also get guidance on further reducing your carbon footprint by implementing life cycle analyses that can quantify the environment impact of different modalities.

Use standby mode: Even when you’re not imaging and your machines are idle, they’re consuming significant amounts of energy, the team said. At the aforementioned Swiss hospital, one-third and two-thirds of the energy used to power the MRI and CT scanners was used in standby mode. Even cooling machines takes an equal amount of energy to active operation. Consequently, the team recommended a 24-hour operating cycle, as well as pursuing efficiency improvements with HVAC systems and imaging techniques.

Power down: It might be convenient and easier, but turn your PACS off overnight, they said. According to one hospital in Iceland, leaving their systems overnight racked up 25,040 kilowatts of energy and produced 17.7 metric tons of carbon dioxide – that’s equivalent to the emissions produced by four passenger cars annually. Simply powering down can be an easy way for smaller, safety net hospitals to decrease costs and improve efficiency. The team also suggested reducing excess packaging in your procedures as a way to drive down the environmental costs in production and disposal.

Choose clean energy: Now is the time to pivot away from fossil-fuels toward renewable energy, the team said, particularly as prices are dropping. Several facilities are already making progress – Kaiser Permanente has achieved carbon neutrality and Gundersen Health system is already net carbon positive.

In order to make these changes a reality, the team said, radiologists must become advocates. Reaching out to specialty societies and lobbying local ACR chapters to join national efforts can be an effective way to further the move toward environmentally sustainable radiology. Publishing modality carbon footprints can also help other specialties understand the environmental dangers associated with over-utilization. The team additionally encouraged radiologists to join and have their voices represented in the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health – a group that includes 29 national medical societies.

Facing this issue head on will be good for not only the industry itself, but also for individual providers and patients, they said.

“Radiology faces many challenges, from improving diversity to changes in reimbursement in a budget neutral system. Addressing climate change is an opportunity to protect vulnerable populations and increase our value in the healthcare system,” they said. “Our field has made great strides in patient safety by decreased radiation doses. Similarly, through our technological expertise and awareness, we can decrease our carbon footprint with the ultimate goal of mitigating climate change and preventing a looming public health crisis.”