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Health Care Pros Build the Case for More Sustainable Hospitals

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We know the impact of health care on our environment is huge: In the United States alone, it’s estimated that hospitals are responsible for generating more than 5.9 million tons of waste annually, and the health care sector is responsible for eight percent of the nation’s carbon footprint. The same can be said of the environment’s impact on health care. In her book, Greening Health Care, Kathy Gerwig of Kaiser Permanente cites a 2002 study that concluded social and environmental factors vastly outweigh medical care in determining people’s health.

It’s not difficult to understand why support for sustainability would be prevalent among health care professionals. In fact, a recent global Harris Poll survey commissioned by Johnson & Johnson found that more than three-quarters of health care professionals across six countries believe sustainability initiatives protect staff, and nearly 70% agreed they make business sense.

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Considered together, the data leads to an inevitable question:

How can health care professionals effectively make the case for investments in sustainability within their organization?

Answers are explored in a newly-released report from the Wharton-led Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership (IGEL) and Johnson & Johnson. Greener Hospitals: Building Consensus for Health Care Sustainability looks at best practices and challenges when it comes to developing, and communicating, the business case for sustainability investments across the health care industry. The report hones in on three key themes:

To build the case for investments in sustainability, the focus must be on the bottom line. According to Kris Soller, senior manager of business solutions at Ethicon, a division of Johnson & Johnson: “Our customers are asking us to make our products more sustainable, but they’re not necessarily willing to pay more for them…[they’re] priced more on the patient outcomes they drive than they are on their environmental characteristics.” J&J’s Earthwards® approach is ensuring product teams are examining environmental impacts throughout the development process. For example, after teams implemented several identified improvements, Ethicon’s Harmonic Focus+ surgical shears now weigh 25% less than the previous model, for a worldwide reduction of about six tons of red bag waste. The slimmer design also results in a more positive user experience in the operating room.

The job of a Chief Sustainability Officer is to become a “Chief Translation Officer,” especially when it comes to moving beyond initiatives with short term ROI, to others that take longer to realize benefits. The report includes a case study from Hewlett Packard sustainability innovation technologist John Frey: “Telling an IT executive that I can help him reduce his carbon footprint is mildly to not interesting at all.” But, said Frey, if he explains instead how the streamlining project will reduce the number of devices that IT has to maintain and troubleshoot; his customer is suddenly very attentive.

Passionate employees can be a driving force for sustainable investments in health care. Janet Howard, director of facility engagement at Practice Greenhealth, discusses how “early wins” by small groups can lead to enduring change. “You build a quiet little army,” said Howard, “and you gather your successes and you write them up and then, and only then, you sit down with leadership, and together as a team in a very coordinated fashion, you demonstrate the value that’s already been realized, and you make a formal pitch for a real program.”
The complete report, Greener Hospitals: Building Consensus for Health Care Sustainability, is available here.

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