Kaiser exec: Can hospitals heal patients and the planet?

Kaiser exec: Can hospitals heal patients and the planet?

Image of stethoscope and world by STEVEN CHIANG via Shutterstock

A healthy and sustainable environment is a necessary foundation for human health. On that most people agree. But there is an interesting paradox in health care: As hospitals deliver care to individuals, their environmental footprint — pollution, energy use, waste production, unsustainable food services — can be harmful to our health.

The statistics might be surprising to some.

Hospitals generate some 7,000 tons of waste per day, or more than 2.3 million tons a year.

One average-sized U.S. hospital produces about 18,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually, and health care accounts for 8 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.

Hospitals are often among the top 10 water users in their communities, with some facilities using up to 700,000 gallons of water per bed per year.

A growing segment of health care business and clinical leaders are addressing this glaring contradiction. They are embracing environmental stewardship as part of their commitment to improving the health of communities so that hospitals can truly be places of healing. And, they are discovering that a focus on sustainability actually can improve the bottom line.

In my new book, "Greening Health Care: How Hospitals Can Heal the Planet," I examine the intersection of health care and environmental health, both in terms of challenges and the revolution underway to overcome them. These strategies are penetrating many other sectors, and the story is much broader than just the health care arena. Businesses that supply medical products, design and build hospitals and clinics, produce food for patients and staff, and make electronic devices for clinical technology are being asked to join the effort. Hospitals are more than an important part of the community; their impact reaches across the globe.

Health care generates about 18 percent of all U.S. economic output, making it large enough to create and lead a national, even global transformation that could incorporate environmental sustainability in every dimension of the sector's economic activity for the health and well-being of the world's people.

"Greening Health Care" focuses on these primary topics: The health implications of climate change; managing and minimizing hospital waste; creating a more sustainable and healthy food system; building greener hospitals and detoxing the health system through the use of greener and safer chemicals.

Healthy profits

While the health care sector can have a significant impact in improving the environment in all of these crucial areas, a key question remains: Can environmental stewardship strategies in health care coexist with today's constant pressure to cut costs?

The latest comprehensive examination of the question estimates that if the health care industry conserved energy, reduced waste and more efficiently purchased operating supplies, it could save more than $15 billion in 10 years. This report, published by the Commonwealth Fund, looked at nine hospitals and health systems over a five-year period.

"This study turns on its head the belief that introducing environmental sustainability measures increases operating costs," says Blair L. Sadler, senior fellow at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, one of the study authors and former CEO of Rady Children's Hospital in San Diego. "In fact, just the opposite is true."

He noted that a focus on environmental stewardship is "good for patients and staff, and is a better strategy than having to lay off valuable personnel or closing effective programs that lose money."

Kaiser Permanente — and a growing group of health care leaders in this area — is making great progress to green its operations all while paying close attention to cost and affordability of health care to our patients. The greening of health care is a lesson of hope, one that can inspire others and lead to a transformation in this vast industry — and in other sectors as well. I invite everyone engaged in health care to take up this cause.

Top image of stethoscope by STEVEN CHIANG via Shutterstock.