Are Hormones Controlling Hospital Energy Use?

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Your hospital design, operation and maintenance of mechanical systems, staff behavior, and patient needs all influence hospital energy use. Because the Earth’s supply of fossil fuels—the power source for most hospitals—is finite, energy conservation is essential. Yet, energy is necessary for systems within the hospital to function. How can hospitals decrease energy use and cost without impinging on patient care? What models can we turn to for inspiration?

Human physiology has struggled with this balance for thousands of centuries, and can provide invaluable insights. Nutrients stored in our bodies provide the energy needed for us to function. The regulation and distribution of this stored fuel is essential to life. Amazingly, our bodies reserve energy for everyday function and responses to emergency situations, while also planning for future needs.

How do our bodies prioritize energy resources to survive and prevent unnecessary energy use? Physiologic functions on all structural levels are continually monitored and regulated by dynamic control systems that optimize energy use, maintain tissues and organs, and respond to forces from both inside and outside our bodies to preserve functions and prevent waste. These multi-level control systems can operate autonomously, yet in a healthy body they are fully integrated with positive and negative feedback loops and ultimately are controlled by our brains.

An example of this control network is seen when a serious bodily threat is sensed. A hormone is released which directs nutrient-rich blood preferentially to the brain, muscles and heart–organs that enable us to make an intelligent decision to fight the threat or flee to safety, and then carry out that decision. Meanwhile, other functions less critical for immediate survival, such as food digestion, are automatically put on hold. When our brain perceives that the emergency situation is over, the diversion of blood to full-action organs ceases, and routine body, organ, tissue and cellular processes resume. Without the brain’s intellectual perception of the beginning and the end of the threatening event, too little or too much energy would be mobilized.

fight or flight

This remarkable system of separate, yet fully integrated control centers allows autonomy within each domain while maintaining an intelligent hierarchy so the body operates as one unit. Every internal or external event causing deviation from an optimal physiologic environment is balanced by a response regulated by a control system. Homeostasis is maintained by allocation of energy to the skin, circulatory system, respiration, muscles, endocrine system, and brain. The ideal control system is one with the ability to both respond to a present event and anticipate a future disruption.

Integrated control systems conserve energy use more effectively

Human body control systems are hierarchical, meaning that each level has a defined range of functional authority. Genetic control governs basic cellular structure and growth. Hormones control metabolic processes, emotions, feeding, and reproduction. And the brain cortex integrates, prioritizes, and controls these sub-level systems to maintain current functions and anticipate future energy needs. When a higher-level control system is eliminated by uncoupling or cessation of functioning, the lower level control system will continue to operate in an non-integrated way. For example, in the case of a severe brain injury, the brain cortex may die, and the person will be unconscious and without intellectual abilities. However, if the lower brainstem control is still functional, the person’s respiration, circulatory, endocrine, and genetic systems will keep their body alive through homeostatic functions. If the brainstem is also dead, the person will need a respirator to continue breathing, but the organs, tissues, and cells will still operate by means of the lower control mechanisms. Clearly, human physiology requires a very close interaction between higher and lower control levels.

Integrated energy control systems in a hospital

Would your hospital use less energy if integrated control systems distributed and monitored energy in a similar manner to the human body? The answer is “Yes.” An intelligent hospital infrastructure identifies clinically significant areas, such as patient rooms and operating rooms, and creates a hierarchy of energy needs critical to patient safety. In an emergency situation with limited power, electricity would be channeled to prioritize life-saving machines such as artificial ventilators, dialysis units, infant incubators, and operating room systems. In addition, electricity and other essential elements (air flow, humidity, etc.) would have back-up sources, as well as automated testing solutions that ensure the backup source is always in working order. With fully integrated control systems, your hospital would not have to rely on autonomous, “hormonal” control and would be therefore freed from unpredictable and wasteful fluctuations in energy consumption.

hospital energy use chart

How are you monitoring and controlling your hospital energy use? Please share your comments below.


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