Inside the effort to strip toxics from U.S. hospitals

It’s not easy to wrangle the largest players in any industry to give up competitive advantages.

But that's what the five largest health care group purchasing organizations (GPOs) in the U.S. (Amerinet, HealthTrust, MedAssets, Novation and Premier) did when they agreed to work together on a standardized list of questions for suppliers about their products' impact on humans and the environment.  

It’s a move that can have a big impact on greening the industry’s supply chain: Purchases of the five GPOs represent 90 percent of all GPO purchases and total $135 billion a year, according to Curtis Rooney, president of the Health Care Supply Chain Association.

 “These GPOs put competition aside to show that they are committed to sustainability,” said Beth Eckl of Practice Greenhealth, a nonprofit organization of more than 1,200 health care organizations (including hospitals and GPOs) aimed at embedding sustainable practices in the health care industry.

While Kaiser Permanente had developed its sustainability scorecard in 2010, there was still a need for standardized questions in order to compare each product using the same measures, according to Eckl, the director of the organization’s environmental purchasing program.

“Purchasers in general are in a key position to affect sustainability,” Eckl said. “What comes in the front door has an impact out the back.”

Released in October, the first version of questionnaire -- which used Kaiser’s scorecard as a model – has 13 questions and took six months to complete, according to Eckl.

It focuses on non-electronic products only and inquires about products' use of natural resources and end-of-life, as well as whether it contains carcinogens or substances such as BPA, polystyrene, PVC or DEHP. (Commonly used products used in hospitals such as IV bags and tubing contain PVC and DEHP, for instance, and are known for their negative effects on human health and the environment). A second version, which will include standardized questions for electronic products, is currently in the works.

“If you look at the supply chain, it’s much more than just the products themselves – it affects energy usage, water usage, waste disposal, chemicals -- purchasing has a footprint in every one of those,” said Seema Wadhwa, the director of the Healthier Hospitals Initiative, a group comprised of 500 member hospitals across the U.S. that advocate for health care organizations to use more sustainable business practices.

Image of doctor in hospital gown courtesy of wavebreakmedia ltd via Shutterstock.

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