Sustainable health care is a work in progress. While virtually everyone recognizes the need for the industry to reduce its considerable impact on the environment, sustainability is rarely a high priority among decision makers at U.S. hospitals. There is so much short-term uncertainty and financial pressure in the industry today that it’s hard for many administrators and supply chain managers to focus on what seem to be secondary, long-term issues.
However, according to Practice Greenhealth, a nonprofit focused on environmental solutions for the health care sector, sustainability doesn’t have to cost more. A 2012 study sponsored by Health Care Without Harm and the Healthier Hospitals Initiative projected that savings from green initiatives could exceed $5.4 billion over five years, and $15 billion over 10 years. Hospitals, for instance, run energy bills of $1 million to $3 million annually, and the low-hanging fruit to cut costs is plentiful and readily available today.
What’s more, many green strategies — from healthier food in American hospitals to greener buildings that can reduce the toxic chemical load at U.S. health care facilities — have profound benefits for patients.
Recognizing the importance of sustainable health care to the well-being of patients, the industry and the environment, Wharton’s Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership (IGEL) and Johnson & Johnson co-sponsored a recent conference titled, “Metrics that Matter, Messages that Motivate.” Drawing on information gathered at that conference and interviews with Wharton faculty and industry experts, this special report focuses on how organizations can find the path to best practices in health care sustainability.
How can hospitals weigh going green in their purchasing decisions? When an environmentally preferable product is also less expensive, the decision to go green is simple. Such win-win decisions are plentiful at first. But hospitals that are committed to sustainability eventually have to make a different kind of decision: how to weigh environmental factors among all the others they consider when purchasing a vast array of products. That’s becoming easier with standardized sustainability questions for suppliers, and comprehensive green ratings for nearly every product health care facilities use.
Some critics say going green is of little importance to the bottom line of hospitals because the savings may be small compared with other costs. While the amounts involved may not compare with physicians’ salaries, say others, the savings from specific green investments offer quick paybacks and significant additions to the bottom line.
Some hospitals are embracing best environmental practices because they also save money. Other green choices create more positive patient outcomes, so even when the budget isn’t a consideration, they are often viewed as worthwhile investments. Hospitals around the country are going green in ways that honor the essence of the ancient Hippocratic Oath.