June 19, 2024

Health Minds

Nourishing Minds, Elevating Health

‘We’ve seen the momentum change’

6 min read

As Earth Day generates more attention on the environment, hospitals have received greater scrutiny for the amount of waste and pollution they produce.

More hospitals and health systems are investing time and resources on initiatives to reduce emissions and pollutants.

In recent years, hospitals and health systems have been working to reduce their impact on the environment. Healthcare leaders say hospitals are investing more time and resources on sustainability efforts.

Kara Brooks, senior associate director of sustainability for the American Society for Health Care Engineering, says hospitals are recognizing that they need to do better.

“I think we’ve seen the momentum change and hospitals are getting more and more involved,” Brooks tells Chief Healthcare Executive®.

Other healthcare leaders say hospitals are recognizing they need to find ways to reduce pollutants, and they’re acknowledging that failing to take action harms communities.

Jonathan Perlin, the president and CEO of the Joint Commission, said in a January interview with Chief Healthcare Executive that he’s seen “a totally different change in tenor over the past year.” The Joint Commission recently launched a program to certify hospital sustainability programs.

“It really is in the context of the first adage of health care: do no harm,” Perlin says. “And as a completely inadvertent consequence of trying to do the best for individuals and society, health care, it turns out, is harming the environment.”

Sharing lessons

More hospitals and health systems are tapping leaders to focus on sustainability programs.

“We’re starting to see actual business units within hospitals dedicated to sustainability,” Brooks says. More hospitals are naming positions such as chief sustainability officers.

About 4 in 10 (41%) say they are appointing leaders such as chief sustainability officers or creating environmental teams, while another 24% say they will do so within the next three years, according to a Commonwealth Fund survey released in January.

About three-quarter of clinicians (76%) say their organizations are reducing waste, while 69% said they are reducing energy consumption.

Health systems are making greater commitments to improve the environment, and implementing new programs and policies in their hospitals, says Nancy Foster, vice president of quality and safety policy for the American Hospital Association.

“Clearly in some cases, it is the system that is leading the effort with the engagement of their hospitals,” Foster says. “We have some systems that are really just fundamentally engaged in this activity, and really made it the work of the entire system.”

Foster says a number of factors are behind the growing attention of hospitals and health systems on their environmental impact. More communities are launching local environmental efforts, and hospitals are engaging in those efforts, she says.

As more hospitals and health systems develop robust sustainability programs, other hospitals are taking notice and looking for guidance as they build and expand their own programs, Foster says.

“Hospitals are very good at sharing with each other, what works and how well it’s working, and that encourages more of them to try more things,” she says. “Because if they see that the hospital across town or two states over has had a significant impact with their efforts to reduce waste from their purchasing habits, they follow some of those same strategies. They can adapt to their own environment and adopt them in an effective way.”

With sustainability programs, Foster says, “Hospitals really take the ball and run with it when they know that there is a good strategy out there that others have found effective.”

Pressure above and below

Hospital executives are hearing more from their own employees about the need to do better for the environment.

“I think many hospital leaders have found that as they talk with their employees, the nurses and doctors who see the ill effects of a bad environment on the population that they’re trying to serve, those executives listen to their employees, and are really engaging in part because because it is so well received by the staff,” Foster says.

In addition, hospitals are finding that environmental programs offer value in retaining workers.

“I keep hearing about how they’re using this for employee engagement, employee retention, because the workforce is very, very interested in this topic,” Brooks says.

About 4 out of 5 clinicians (79%) said their hospitals should be engaged on climate change, according to the Commonwealth Fund survey. About 6 in 10 (62%) said a potential employer’s climate change policies would be a factor in their decision to pursue a job with the organization.

Health systems are also seeing greater engagement from their executives, and the governing boards of hospitals are also raising more questions about the environmental impact of their organizations.

“I think we’re seeing it come from the board of trustees level as well, where they see this as an important initiative,” Brooks says.

“I think our boards are getting more and more involved with it,” she adds. “And if you look at the background of some board members, and you know that their organizations that they are leading or working for also have these goals, I think that it’s kind of become a little bit of a domino effect that way.”

Foster says the boards of nonprofit hospitals are giving more attention to environmental concerns.

“Particularly for the not-for-profit hospitals, their boards are there to represent the interest of the community, in both preserving healthcare in that community and ensuring that healthcare is of high quality, but also ensuring that the hospitals, appropriately, are thinking about the health of the community,” Foster says. “And so it’s right in their wheelhouse to be working to raise issues of what the hospital is doing around sustainability.”

Federal factors

President Biden’s administration has given greater attention to the healthcare industry and its impact on the environment, and that’s also driving the interest of hospitals on this issue.

The healthcare industry is responsible for about 8.5% of America’s carbon emissions, federal officials say. Lawmakers have asked hospitals what they are doing to address climate change.

Dozens of large health systems, representing hundreds of hospitals, have pledged to reach the Biden administration’s call for healthcare organizations to cut emissions by 50% by 2030.

More hospitals are taking advantage of funding from the Inflation Reduction Act to advance their environmental programs, Brooks says. The federal law offers billions of dollars in funds and tax credits on projects to improve energy efficiency in existing facilities and designing new construction projects.

The Inflation Reduction Act “can really benefit the smaller organizations,” Brooks says.

Healthcare leaders had expressed concerns about the possibility of federal mandates on emissions and sustainability, but Foster says talk about such government requirements has subsided.

She says the government has been helpful to hospitals in sharing best practices that can help hospitals and health systems reduce pollution.

“I think they are finding much more receptivity, more willingness of hospitals and other healthcare providers to really get engaged with the approach they’re currently using,” Foster says.

Going green, saving green

Health systems are also finding savings from some of their environmental initiatives, and that’s another appealing factor to hospitals, particularly as many struggle financially.

Providence has said it has saved $11 million annually by reducing waste and emissions and improving energy efficiency. Dignity Health, part of CommonSpirit Health, saved millions of dollars by switching to LED light bulbs. Hospitals are also saving money, and cutting emissions, by using anesthesia that’s less harmful to the environment.

Brooks notes that environmental efforts, such as those to reduce energy usage, are paying off for hospitals.

“They’re experiencing a lot of monetary savings. They’re able to put that back into patient care,” Brooks says.

To learn more

Check out the Joint Commission’s Sustainable Healthcare Resource Center for tools and advice on reducing emissions and waste and doing better for the environment.

The American Society for Health Care Engineering’s “Energy to Care” program helps health systems track their electricity spending, emissions and offers mitigation strategies, even for limited budgets.

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