UVM Medical Center

UVM Medical Center Honored for Climate-Friendly Health Initiatives

Health Care Without Harm’s ‘Climate Resilience – Gold’ Award celebrates Medical Center programs that focus on the health of people and the planet


Burlington, Vt. – For years, Diane Imrie and a group of sustainability-minded professionals and clinicians across the University of Vermont Medical Center have worked to find spaces in health care for concepts like “sustainability” and “climate-friendly.” Now, the organization is routinely honored as a health care leader for embracing the connection between patient care, health, and conscientious environmental stewardship. 

“Vermonters are experiencing the impacts and feeling the urgency of addressing climate change, and UVM Medical Center is committed to continuing our leadership,” says Imrie, Interim Network Director of Sustainability at UVM Medical Center. “Our role is to prepare for the impacts of climate change by building resilient systems that support and promote healthy, sustainable communities.”

Health Care Without Harm, an international organization focused on environmental reform, sustainability and equity in health care, recently named UVM Medical Center as the recipient of its 2023 Health Care Climate Challenge Gold Award for Climate Resilience. The annual awards are given based on environmental-impact-related data collected in partnership with Practice Greenhealth, and this year included more than 200 organizations from 18 countries.

Where Equitable Health Care Meets Climate-Conscious Planning

Two initiatives focused on expanding access to care for underserved and at-risk populations, as well as making a positive environmental impact, won praise as part of UVM Medical Center’s Climate Resilience award.

A project that aims to understand barriers to telemedicine access for underserved populations by gathering data on gaps in resources for people who struggle with communication, transportation, and infrastructure challenges that often limit their access to care – also seeks to ultimately reduce greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the number of vehicles needed to carry patients to and from medical appointments.

Telemedicine, sometimes called telehealth, is the use of electronic information, communications and clinical technologies to provide and support health care services remotely.

Project leaders say the goal is to expand telemedicine services based on the feedback of people who are disproportionately affected by barriers to care. The team conducts interviews with individual patients and health care providers and holds focus group sessions with the goal of gathering data to enable providers to make evidence-based decisions about how best to expand telemedicine services to reach underserved populations.

“This is a win-win-win,” says Dr. Beth Zigmund, division chief of Cardiothoracic Radiology at UVM Medical Center, and the telehealth expansion project leader. “You can improve health, improve equitable access to care, and decrease the toxic emissions and greenhouse gases that are produced by our vehicles, which is good for the environment and our overall population health. It’s a great example of how what’s good for the environment can dovetail with efforts to improve people’s health in an equitable fashion.”

According to Vermont’s Agency of Transportation, 38% of the state’s energy consumption is dedicated to transportation, which is responsible for approximately 40% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the state – making it the largest single contributor of greenhouse gasses generated in the state. Vermont drivers have the highest average miles traveled per capita in the northeast United States, according to a 2021 state-level climate assessment published by the University of Vermont.

Thermal energy use – heating and cooling buildings – is a close second and accounts for about 34% of emissions statewide, according to the University assessment. UVM Medical Center’s support of Vermont’s Weatherization Plus Health Initiative seeks to help reduce those emissions while also improving respiratory health for children.

The program, which provides free home weatherization services to income-eligible households across the state, got a boost from the Medical Center’s Sustainability Council earlier this year with funding for “green” cleaning kits for 45 high-risk pediatric patients who have asthma. The kits include HEPA air cleaners, vacuums and other allergen-reducing items for use in areas across the home – from bedrooms to the kitchen.

Patients and their families were also enrolled in a statewide program that provides asthma coaching and support through UVM Medical Center, in addition to the state-led home improvement services provided through the program.

“Reducing asthma triggers and improving the ability of children and families to manage this condition is the cornerstone of our program,” says Dr. Kelly Cowan, a pediatric pulmonologist at the Medical Center who leads its work within the state program. “Managing a condition like asthma can be a challenge for all ages, and there are a lot of conditions in addition to asthma that are affected by the quality of the air in our homes.”

Green Building and Sustainable Agriculture

UVM Medical Center’s work decreasing its own environmental footprint — especially through efficiency-minded operating practices, building maintenance, and local agricultural partnerships focused on sustainability — earned the organization’s recognition as well.

Two operations-focused projects – bi-annual steam trap repairs throughout UVM Medical Center facilities, and work to reduce anesthetic gas emissions as part of UVM Medical Center’s commitment to the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change Race to Zero initiative – earned recognition for both positive environmental impacts and significant operating cost savings.

To reduce emissions of a variety of anesthetic gases – many of which, like nitrous oxide, are powerful contributors to the greenhouse effect warming the planet – the UVM Medical Center reviewed provide records and tracked use of the gases, to identify potential leaks in its gas delivery system. Earlier this year, UVM Medical Center updated the gas delivery system serving its operating and procedure rooms, with the goal of reaching net-zero emissions.

A focus on routine maintenance to steam traps, which are integral pieces of the boiler systems used to heat UVM Medical Center facilities, also earned recognition. With about 1,000 steam traps in need of annual or bi-annual checkups to ensure they are operating properly, the project saves the Medical Center tens of thousands of dollars in energy costs each year and reduces the amount of water used by facilities across the Medical Center’s main and Fanny Allen campuses.

“It’s easy when you’re operating a large facility to say, ‘we’re not going to do that this year’,” says Heather Kendrew, UVM Medical Center’s director of Facilities, of why the routine maintenance is important. “But when you look at the bigger picture of what we’re trying to accomplish as an institution, to be sustainable, it really is a best practice and ensures that we aren’t wasting energy and consuming water that could be used elsewhere.”

The Medical Center’s innovative partnerships with about a dozen Vermont farms on a project called BloomTrain, a regional campaign of farmers and community members working to heal the land and care for pollinator populations, was also cited as part of its award-winning lineup of climate-friendly initiatives.

“This work is building topsoil, maintaining clean water and preventing runoff damage. It is critical to the future health of our community,” Imrie said.

Most recently, UVM Medical Center was named to Practice Greenhealth’s Circles of Excellence for waste, food, energy and green building in 2023. The awards recognize the 10 highest-performing hospitals each year, in specific categories related to environmental sustainability.