How Green is Your Hospital?

From Marty Stempniak, H&HN Staff Writer

Image source: Microsoft Images

TUCSON, Ariz. — We’ve all heard of everything from checklists to hand-washing campaigns to try and bolster patient safety, but what about reducing your health system’s waste output or energy use to try and lessen patient harm?

If providers want to get in the business of population health, it’s critical that they start thinking more seriously about environmental stewardship. Hospitals ship about 6,600 tons of waste to landfills each day, spend about $10 billion a year on energy. The health care sector produces roughly 8 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, Seema Wadhwa, director of sustainability for Inova Health System, told attendees this week at the Siemens Health Executives Forum. Attacking those environmental concerns should be a key piece of any hospital’s strategy to manage the health of its community.

“The health care industry is based on the principal and premise that, first, we will do no harm,” Wadhwa said. “Perhaps this is an opportunity for us to take a look at our own operations and the way that we’re leading our facilities to really understand what our impacts are, and how we are the anchor institutes for many of our communities.”

Inova Health, in north Virginia, has looked to perfect its approach to sustainability in recent years, and tried to catch some of those environmentally induced health problems upstream before they snowball into chronic diseases. The organization has eliminated 1 million pounds of regulated medical waste through education, training and proper waste segregation, and cut another 60,000 pounds of waste over the last three years through single-use device reprocessing. Not only have those efforts lessened landfill heaps, they’ve also saved the system nearly $3 million, Wadhwa said.

Those are just a few of the slew of green initiatives championed by the system, which is also partnering with local farmers markets so food isn’t traveling from miles away, developing an employee commuter-bus program and taking part in a fashion show displaying items made out of recycled surgical blue wrap. Inova also sponsors the Healthier Hospitals Initiative, which has more than 800 hospitals pushing toward green goals.

But what can the average hospital do to jump on the sustainability train? Find partners, Wadhwa said. Look closer at the demand-driven supply chain. Engage patients and employees on where savings can be found. Hospitals account for about 18 percent or $2.7 trillion of GDP, Wadhwa pointed out, and should harness that spending power toward the greater good.

“Imagine if that force was actually used to propagate creating new products and new services that reduced our impact on the environment,” she said.

During a separate presentation on Wednesday, author and Ohio State University professor John Sena touted sustainability as one of the “emerging trends” in health care in the near-term. He pointed to one recent survey of hospital executives by ACHE, which estimated that by 2015: Hospitals will have to report incidents of environmental harm, 90 percent will conduct environmental audits,, and 90 percent will have some sort of  “green team.”

“I think we have a big responsibility in that area,” Sena said. “Unless you have a steel plant in your town, you are probably the biggest consumer of energy and the biggest producer of waste in your community. I think, as a role model, we should be the first ones to be confronting this.”

We’ve been tracking hospital sustainability efforts for years, from zero-waste initiatives to facilities built with certification given by the U.S. Green Buildings Council. What’s your hospital doing to try and lessen its impact on Mother Earth? Or are you so wrapped up in RAC audits and satisfaction surveys that you could not care less? Share your thoughts in the comment section, and watch for my final report from the Health Executives Forum on Thursday.

The opinions expressed by authors do not necessarily reflect the policy of Health Forum Inc. or the American Hospital Association.