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Earth Day and hospitals: Growing focus on sustainability


Even as health systems have faced the pandemic and financial challenges, some organizations are working to reduce their environmental impact.

Hospitals have been paying more attention to sustainability in recent years.

Mark Howell, director of policy and patient safety for the American Hospital Association. (Photo provided by the American Hospital Association)

Mark Howell, director of policy and patient safety for the American Hospital Association. (Photo provided by the American Hospital Association)

“There’s been a significant uptick in not only interest but in action related to the work,” says Mark Howell, director of policy and patient safety for the American Hospital Association.

While Earth Day is being observed today, it’s worth taking a look at where hospitals are progressing in terms of reducing their environmental impact. Since hospitals have wrestled with the COVID-19 pandemic and steep financial difficulties, some systems are farther along than others, Howell says.

“Some hospitals are just getting started or haven't started at all,” Howell says. “Some are well down the path.”

Regardless of progress, there is a growing recognition that it’s an issue health systems can’t ignore. “In my conversations, I haven’t heard someone saying, ‘We don’t want to do this work.’”

Howell talked with Chief Healthcare Executive® about the growing push for sustainability, initial steps to build success, and how those efforts can link with organizational goals, including health equity.

Federal priority

Hospitals also realize President Biden has made reducing emissions a key priority, and that includes hospitals and health systems. The healthcare industry is responsible for 8.5% of America’s carbon emissions, federal officials say.

Dozens of hospitals and healthcare groups pledged to reach President Biden’s call for healthcare organizations to cut emissions by 50% by 2030.

“Over the last two years, the Biden administration has been pretty vocal about its expectations, not just for the health sector, but the entire economy to bring down emissions,” Howell says.

Some hospital leaders are worried that sustainability standards are going to be tied to federal funding for hospitals. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services have yet to introduce regulations requiring hospitals to reduce their environmental impact. The AHA is leery of regulatory demands, especially as many hospitals have struggled mightily in the pandemic.

If there are financial penalties from the government, “You could build a lot of frustration in the field.”

(Shelly L. Schlenker, CommonSpirit Health’s executive vice president and chief advocacy officer, offers tips for building support for sustainability in this video. The story continues below.)

Getting started

Hospitals obviously face some hurdles that aren’t as prevalent in other industries. Hospitals operate around the clock, so they use a great deal of energy. And plenty of items in medical procedures are only used once.

For health systems that are just beginning the tackle of reducing their environmental impact, Howell says organizations need to establish a leader responsible for sustainability.

“You need someone who has this within their portfolio and can transmit this information across the leadership structure,” Howell says.

It may take some effort to get support within the organization for environmental programs. After all, many healthcare leaders and workers are already juggling more than they’d like.

“When you introduce an issue as large as environmental sustainability to an already overwhelmed organization, the initial reaction may be hesitancy,” Howell says.

In order to build support for sustainability initiatives, it’s critical to link those efforts to the system’s financial goals. Executives have a better chance of seeing success by building the business case.

The Providence health system has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions from anesthesia, and the system says the change has saved millions of dollars. Providence recently appointed Brian Chesebro as the first system-wide medical director of environmental stewardship.

It’s critical to show that going green doesn’t mean going further into the red, Howell says. Simple steps such as moving to LED bulbs can reduce energy costs. Shelly L. Schlenker, CommonSpirit Health’s executive vice president and chief advocacy officer, said at the AHA Leadership Summit last year that her system saved millions by moving to LED bulbs.

“It’s not just a public health and an environmental ROI, but your organization is going to see financial savings as well,” Howell says.

Form ‘green teams’

Health systems looking to make progress should establish “green teams” including clinicians and members of departments across the hospital. Leaders and managers should also find ways to take some responsiblities away from those willing to work on the green teams. Leaders can also solicit ideas from employees who may not be able to join the team, but have useful suggestions.

Many younger professionals take sustainability very seriously and could be ideal members of those teams.

“The younger workforce wants to be engaged on that issue,” Howell says.

In fact, some organizations are using such programs as tools to recruit and retain workers. Get some of the team members involved in sustainability, and “they’re more likely to stick around,” Howell says.

Teams should focus initially on simpler goals, such as LED bulbs, and getting a handle on the emissions that they can control. “Start there, focus on achievable stuff, build the confidence,” Howell says.

Eventually, as health systems score some wins and build some momentum throughout the organization, they can start tackling more difficult challenges, including working with vendors and suppliers on their environmental impact.

Health systems should also find that improving their sustainability and reducing their environmental impact meshes with another increasingly high priority: improving health equity.

As health systems reduce emissions, they are helping to make their communities healthier.

While reducing a hospital’s environmental impact can seem like a herculean task, Howell says systems should focus on taking measured steps that can make a difference.

“You can do things to get where you need to be,” Howell says.

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