Organizations focused on “going green” often identify unique opportunities impacting stewardship and sustainability as they increase their strategic focus on conservationism. Healthcare, as an industry, is a great example where increased focus can yield value-added outcomes.
Embracing environmental awareness has never been more critical. Recent research in the Public Library of Science Journal by Eckelman and Sherman noted that 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are produced by the healthcare sector alone. The related impact results in $1.1 million in negative health impact and/or costs for a single 200 bed, coal-powered facility. The average energy cost per bed was noted at $13,611. Thus, healthcare entities possess an opportunity to implement strategies that have the potential to impact areas such as waste reduction, energy efficiency, and water preservation. Such changes result in benefits to the organization and support stewardship of population health.
Waste reduction begins with conscientious procurement and the scrutiny of life cycles. Setting priorities in purchasing enables healthcare organizations to reduce waste, focus on the highest value opportunities, and, over time, become more sustainable. Considering the environmental effects of products and their related materials during each stage of the life cycle—manufacture, distribution, use, and end-of-life, or disposal—is critical. Through intentional effort, organization leadership and procurement staff can work closely with suppliers to procure supplies that meet the needs of the practice and reduce environmental impact. A focus on purchasing products made from recyclable materials that are minimally packaged is recommended. Limiting package waste and consuming recyclable products reduces overall waste yielded by the organization over time. The Healthcare Environmental Resource Center estimated that healthcare facilities in the U.S. generate nearly two billion pounds of paper and cardboard waste each year.
Evaluating and reimagining product life cycles is equally important. Since products are often discarded before the end of their life cycle, organizations have an opportunity to work with suppliers to reprocess and/or redistribute viable inventory that can yield positive outcomes. Virginia Mason Medical Center is a great example—the medical center reduced more than 13,000 pounds of waste through the reprocessing of single use medical devices. In addition, through re-envisioning life cycle considerations, Harborview Medical Center, located in King County, Washington, worked with suppliers to donate old hospital beds to be repurposed in economically developing countries.
Greenhouse gas emissions, energy, and fuel efficiency have become greater priorities for today’s organizations. Healthcare organizations possess a scalable opportunity in this area. Strategies can often be implemented incrementally yielding positive outcomes over time. Organizations might begin by committing to more energy-efficient lighting. Or, perhaps, the organization may choose to re-evaluate and make slight adjustments to process efficiencies that impact consumption. Engaging in scalable solutions is often advisable before committing to more dramatic endeavors.
Strategic concerns of this category are often linked to process efficiency, production, distribution, and consumption. The Cleveland Clinic, an early adopter of the sustainability movement, recognized the health industry’s contribution to emitting greenhouse gases and over the last decade has saved an estimated $50 million in energy costs through associated strategies. Additionally, another healthcare organization, Kaiser Permanente, incorporated sustainability as an essential strategy of their organization. In doing so, the organization focused on the health of not only its workforce but also the larger community. Two areas targeted were energy production and consumption. In one facility, they constructed a three story, 60,478-square-foot energy center, providing power to the hospital in two ways. Photovoltaic technology produced 3 percent of the hospital’s annual energy needs via 1,560 solar panels. Additionally, the facility opted for a nontraditional chilled beam system for heating and cooling. Commonplace in Europe, these systems incorporate air supply and coils filled with water to warm and/or cool patient rooms.
Water preservation is another targeted initiative, like recycling and energy, that can be incrementally adopted and adapted within an organization’s green initiative. It is dually rooted under the category of waste reduction as water consumption often goes unmonitored. Conserving water often yields greater benefits for those faced with more costly consumption due to being geographically dispersed in areas of long term drought. Healthcare organizations that reside in California, for example, have the ability to implement conservation efforts that prove socially responsible and directly impact the community. Other organizations may choose more drastic measures beyond awareness and monitoring approaches—such as retrograding facilities with higher efficiency plumbing yielding less consumption per use and dramatically reducing utilization over time. For example, a hospital in Washington State replaced and/or retrofitted facilities with water-efficient plumbing. Post improvements, the hospital estimated that it saved approximately $140,000 per year in water and wastewater costs and 3.9 million gallons per year in water usage.
Population health and environmentally focused initiatives recognize the complex connections that exist between persons, their health, and the environment. As healthcare organizations, we must continue to focus on improving health services and better manage natural resources in an effort to conserve the ecosystems we depend upon. Transforming or transitioning healthcare organizations into environmentally focused organizations requires leadership commitment, stakeholder engagement, and a strategic focus on organization and community sustainability.