500-plus hospitals join forces to green the health care industry

500-plus hospitals join forces to green the health care industry

A coalition of hospital and health care groups in the U.S. has written a detailed prescription on how to transform the industry by tackling waste, runaway energy consumption, lax supply chains and other major obstacles to sustainability.

The group, which collectively represents more than 500 hospitals, has also pledged to take its own medicine and will follow a six-point sustainability agenda that the coalition issued this week.

What's more, the group -- which is banding together in an effort called the Healthier Hospitals Initiative -- is looking to draw at least another 2,000 hospitals to the cause in the next three years. And the sponsoring health care companies and organizations behind the initiative are offering an array of free resources to any hospital that wishes to pursue the initiative.

"There really is no barrier to entry," said Gary Cohen, the founder and president of Health Care Without Harm and a moving force for the initiative. Like the resources that are available, registration is free, he said.

"It's just a matter of reaching out to hospitals," Cohen said. "And if there is an impediment, it's getting them to see that this is not an ancillary issue."

Sustainable operations are core to the health care industry, he and other advocates of the initiative say.

Hospitals are enormous consumers of energy and mountains of supplies ranging from gauze to sophisticated technology. They generate tons of waste, a good portion of which requires special handling. And many of the things used in the places that are intended to help heal the ill and the wounded contain substances that can be harmful to people's health. In short, hospitals can make people sicker, in addition to treading more heavily on an ailing planet.

Further, said Cohen, hospitals -- and the health care industry in general -- are focused chiefly on treatment rather than promoting behavior that supports wellness. In an era of soaring health care costs and rising incidences of treatment-intensive diseases such as cancer, obesity, diabetes and asthma, a treatment-focused strategy adds further stress to an overburdened health care system. Treatment for chronic diseases accounts for about 75 percent of health care costs, Cohen noted.

"It's no longer viable to focus only on treatment," Cohen said. "That's why we are we are inspired to build a national campaign to reinvent hospitals as community anchors for sustainability, health and prevention of disease."

The six focus areas of the Healthier Hospitals Initiative are:

  • Engaging hospital and health care leadership on environmental health and sustainability
  • Serving healthier foods and beverages
  • Reducing energy use
  • Reducing waste and increasing recycling
  • Using safer chemicals
  • Purchasing environmentally preferable products

The health care systems, companies and professional organizations that have  signed on as initiative sponsors represent some of the more influential groups in the industry. They include Advocate Healthcare, Bon Secours Health System, Catholic Health Initiatives, Dignity Health, Hospital Corporation of America, Kaiser Permanente, Inova Health System, MedStar Health, Partners HealthCare. Tenet Healthcare, Vanguard Health Systems, Catholic Health Initiatives, Practice Greenhealth, Health Care Without Harm, Center for Health Design.

The initiative has been under way for more than a year and its list of sponsors has grown since its founding. The prescription for sustainability announced this week and the rollout of resources mark the first major move by the effort.

Individually and in subsets of the larger group, several of the members have worked in recent years to bring more sustainable and environmentally responsible practices to health care. They include Kaiser, Dignity Health (previously branded as Catholic Healthcare West), Practice Greenhealth and Health Care Without Harm.

Among the health care systems, Kaiser has launched prominent efforts to design greener facilities, use renewable energy and revamp its vast supply chain. Kaiser estimates that its environmentally preferred purchasing program saves the organization $26 million a year. Dignity Health saved roughly $5.4 million in 2010 as a result of buying reusable rather than disposable products.

Such work, inspired in part by Walmart's efforts to retool its supply chain, is being taken up by others in the health care industry.

Health care represents about 18 percent of the entire economy and the sponsors of the Healthier Hospitals Initiative are the end users in a $20 billion supply chain, according to Cohen.

"If we can aggregate the purchasing power of hospitals, we can influence change throughout the industry and the businesses that supply it," he said.

Firms that have seen the business opportunity presented by more sustainable hospital operations include Philips and its Ambient Experience product line, Herman Miller, InterfaceFlor and Valley Forge Fabrics.

The Healthier Hospital Initiative plans to measure the environmental and financial impacts of the steps taken by hospitals that adopt the group's strategy.

Photo of surgeons via Shutterstock.com.