Tying environmental consciousness to fiscal responsibility: 3 areas where hospitals can go green and cut costs

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Hospitals used to simply incinerate their waste. However, in recent years, providers have started giving their refuse more thought and considering ways to reduce it for the sake of both cost-cutting and community impact, according to Teri Scannell, director of corporate social responsibility and sustainability at VHA Inc.

"We saw this as an increasing trend," she says. "Originally this started where you would expect it to start — for example, Colorado. Places where the community had a sustainability focus. They found though it was better for patients, employees and financial benefits."

There are three main areas where hospitals can generally find opportunities to reduce waste, promote environmental sustainability and reduce spending, according to Ms. Scannell.

1. Waste management. In the process of serving thousands of people each year, hospitals produce an incredible amount of waste, averaging 26 pounds per patient per day, according to Ms. Scannell. One way to cut back on waste is recycling. For instance, some facilities have begun recycling surgical blue wrap to produce plastic pellets, which are then repurposed into other supplies.

Others have started reprocessing medical devices — in accordance with Food and Drug Administration guidelines, of course — to boost their bottom lines. "When you start reprocessing, recycling, you're pulling waste out and turning it from a cost to a cost savings," Ms. Scannell says. "That's one of the reasons this has become extremely important for hospitals, as they try to continue to do more with less."

Discarded food presents another area of opportunity. Some hospitals have begun to compost their food waste. Or, to save money on shipping, they partner with local farmers to supply fresh food from nearby. Additionally, hospitals can take an on-demand approach to meals. "When you want a meal, you order it and get the meal, rather than having the meal delivered while you're having a test or procedure, and then the meal's cold," Ms. Scannell says, noting the practice reduces waste while also increasing patient satisfaction. 

2. Energy use. In addition to producing a lot of waste, healthcare is a high-energy industry, spending a collective $6.5 billion annually on energy costs, according to Ms. Scannell. In order to contain energy-related costs, she says hospitals have been conducting audits of their usage and examining across-the-board heating and air controls: "Elements needed for a surgical suite aren't necessarily needed for a conference room,” she explains.

Motion detectors that automatically turn out the lights when rooms are empty and the use of compact fluorescent lights (which last eight to 15 times longer than incandescent bulbs) can also help reduce unneeded energy usage. 

3. Water consumption. Hospitals are often the largest water consumers in their communities, using an average of 570 gallons per staffed bed each day, according to Ms. Scannell. "There are areas in the U.S. that are experiencing drought," she says. "Conserving water is critical to the communities they serve."

To reduce excessive water use, some hospitals have installed water meters to track consumption and have invested in fixing leaks and other plumbing issues. Additionally, when healthcare organizations construct new facilities, environmentally (and fiscally) conscious providers are installing low-flow plumbing features.

"Hospitals are not going away from planning healing gardens, because gardens are important…but we're seeing them go to native landscaping…and looking at low water sprinkler usage," Ms. Scannell says. "They're looking to a landscape that needs less water but still provides garden benefits."

Overall, when leaders realize the positive impact waste reduction and sustainability efforts can have on hospital finances, the community they serve and the environment, most support going green. "When you get people around to seeing the benefits and the savings, folks tend to make good decisions," she says. "And it has a cascading effect through the organization."

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