10 reasons health care needs sustainability treatments

Imagine a space where you feel good. Muscles relax, breathing is deeper. There is a natural feeling of gratitude and calm. Does this space lead to more positive interactions with others? Does it bring out the best in you?

Hospitals have a mission to help the elderly and the weak, but don't always walk the walk. Cancer is treated, but hazardous chemicals are found in cleaning products and furniture. Heart conditions are taken care of, but French fries and burgers are served in the cafeteria. There's a global climate-change crisis, yet hospitals are the second-highest energy consumer of any sector and generate more than 30 pounds of waste per bed per day.

Health care is in conflict with itself — in some ways, it's its own worst enemy. A sound treatment protocol has to be balanced with resource conservation and management. Here are 10 reasons to practice a better approach.

1. Human health and the environment

Climate change impacts public health, yet most facilities aren't ready to say it out loud. Hospitals cannot get in balance without a top-down stewardship strategy that aligns with the organization's goals, as a handful of hospitals have started to prove.

Wisconsin-based hospital system ThedaCare, for example, created a "sustainability leader" position and is hosting the Climate and Health Symposium to educate staff about environmental action and education. A member of Practice Greenhealth, it has signed onto all six challenges in the Healthier Hospitals Initiative (HHI), a national campaign to improve sustainability in the health-care sector.

Tenet Health also incorporates sustainability initiatives. Its Sustainability Report demonstrates a system-wide approach to better health and demonstrates how that strategy is incorporated at the local level. Advocate Healthcare, meanwhile, highlights progress meeting environmental goals in its own Sustainability Report.

2. Prevention

We've moved beyond the notion of merely treating disease and toward prevention and wellness, with several pioneering programs leading the way. Magee Womens Hospital of UPMC, for instance, teaches parents about the connection between human health and the environment through prenatal classes and its "Baby Steps to Green Parenting" program (video below).

With a large number of chronic diseases linked to diet, hospitals are also increasingly implementing sustainable food policies. They are signing Health Care Without Harm's Healthy Food Pledge and modeling better behavior through increased vegetarian options, reduced sugar-sweetened beverages and more locally sourced fruits and vegetables. Through HHI, hospitals and their food-service partners are working together to identify barriers to healthier food systems, increasing nutritious options and facilitating improved purchasing while maintaining costs. One leader in this movement is Fletcher Allen in Vermont, which purchases local organic veggies, syrup, cheese and more.

3. Cost savings

Extending the life of equipment, improving efficiency, preventing toxins and waste, using less energy and water — these activities reduce costs. South Carolina's Bon Secours St. Francis Health System was the first hospital in the state to receive Energy Star designation when it reduced energy use by 20 percent through the development of the Ecological Stewardship Plan, resulting in annual energy-cost savings of $850,000. As a sponsor of the Healthier Hospitals Initiative, it shares winning solutions to help others do the same.

4. Employee engagement

Workers engaged in what they do will provide better care to more satisfied patients. New York Presbyterian Hospital in New York City harnesses employee passion through the Green Champion Program, which empowers environmental leaders and supports action through checklists and activities shared by Harvard University's Green Office Resource Green Leaf Program. Advocate Healthcare, meanwhile, celebrates its Environmental Stewardship Winners in a video that highlights and empowers employees to make healthy changes at work.

5. Competitive advantage

At this year's Institute for Health Care Improvement annual conference, co-founder Don Berwick shared in his keynote that environmental stewardship has redefined the three-pronged framework for quality health care — patient experience, cost per capita and population health.

"Hospitals, places of healing, can model healthier behavior," Dr. Berwick said. "Leaders that integrate environmentally sustainable operations at their facilities create a culture of nurturing and demonstrate sincere commitment to all people." Yet not all leaders get this — indeed, 50 percent of health-care workers are unsatisfied with their leadership, largely because they want to feel cared for and don't feel this is happening.

6. Mission and ethics

What is the value of long-term success if it's on an uninhabitable planet? When framing environmental stewardship activities, it helps to review a hospital's mission statement. Most of these focus on health and healing, communities, quality and safety. Some hospitals have created environmental charters to frame their commitment.

Ronald P. Hamel, Ph.D., senior director of ethics for the Catholic Health Association, explains the critical role ethics play in health care. "Ethics are central not only in helping to shape the culture of an organization, but in guiding the organization's decision-making, behavior and integrity," he said. "Ethics should assist the organization in becoming what it claims to be in regards to identity, character and culture. A self-unaware and constricted consciousness is one of ethics' great adversaries."

7. Marketing and PR

Practice Greenhealth, the nonprofit where I work, hosts the health sector's Environmental Excellence Awards. These offer an opportunity for hospitals, long-term care facilities and community health centers to share, and receive recognition for, positive data and the stories behind them. Applications result in the Sustainability Benchmark report and a celebration at the annual conference, CleanMed. The UC Davis Health System is one example of a facility that shares details of its commitment on an official web page and blog.

8. Community benefits

The Affordable Care Act requires not-for-profit hospitals to conduct a community needs assessment and to develop implementation strategies to address identified needs. In addition, the Internal Revenue requires tax-exempt hospitals to document their community benefits and community-building activities.

Both the Catholic Health Association and Health Care Without Harm have worked to integrate certain environmental improvement initiatives into community health-needs assessments.

Historically, Kaiser Permanente has integrated environmental stewardship activities into its Community Benefit Report. In 2013, it took this one step further by integrating the Community Benefit report into its Annual Report. Along with Dignity Health, Kaiser Permanente was an early adopter in formally reporting healthy initiatives. Dignity Health works with CERES and is the first system to use the Global Reporting Initiative framework for reporting.

9. Patient experience

A quality patient experience goes beyond clinical excellence. The environment that makes one feel less stressed and cared for — a look in the eyes, a caring conversation — can be harder to quantify, but is also important for the healing process.

10. Happiness

Happiness comes from helping others. Protecting the planet, even in small ways, is something that takes healing beyond the facility walls.

Whether you work in health care or receive health care or both, you can be part of the movement. Write a letter to the president and board of directors for your local hospital and ask about their formal sustainability plan. Let them know it's important to you.

Medicine photo by Nomad_Soul via Shutterstock