Moving Toward Sustainable Healthcare: Where Should Hospitals Begin?

Sustainability is not a new topic, but it is an ever-evolving one. From a once fringe group effort to a mainstream requirement, the movement has literally grown up in the past 10 years across the nation. But where does it reside in healthcare, an area that makes up 16 percent of the country's gross national product? In an area where patient safety and controlling costs are the top priorities, where in the mix does sustainability fall? Is it at odds with quality and cost or a compliment?  Do hospitals have an obligation to the communities they serve to deliver environmentally-friendly care?  
Along with the other commercial sectors, healthcare has progressed substantially in the area of sustainability.  Many hospitals employ a sustainability coordinator, tasked with promoting and implementing environmental initiatives throughout the facility. In addition, healthcare organizations have found that environmentally-friendly equates to patient- and personnel-friendly, which in turn can result as budget-friendly. This realization that environmentally-friendly healthcare delivery can result in savings of a few dollars to a few hundred thousand dollars has caught the eye of savvy CEOs and CFOs, thus thrusting sustainability into organizations' goals and objectives.

Where to begin?
One of the most common questions from hospital leaders seems to be "Where do we start?" Turning your organization from a seemingly chemical-laden, waste-producing environmental abscess to a well-oiled sustainability machine can seem like a daunting task, especially when patient safety, patient satisfaction and cost concerns rank higher on the spectrum of priorities. Therefore, I advise hospitals that are new to sustainability to start with projects in non-patient areas. Non-patient areas such as office spaces, are not open 24/7 like patient areas, so look to these office areas for opportunities that every business has:  reducing copy paper, double-printing and electricity conservation. Another area in which I've seen success is in hospital visitor and staff cafeterias. Recycling programs are always popular and easy to institute in cafeterias. And, because the concept of sustainability is an all-around notion of healthier living, hospitals are eliminating cafeteria fryers to surprisingly few complaints. Hospitals can also institute environmentally-friendly initiatives in janitorial areas. Green cleaners, those certified by Green Seal or EcoLogoTM, can be used in hospitals wanting to eliminate chemicals that can be harmful to both patients and staff. 

On the patient side, the best place to start is the elimination of mercury from the facility.  Mercury, a known toxin, has been virtually eliminated from Novation's portfolio of products, and mercury substitutes are readily available for standard items such as sphygmomanometers (blood pressure gauge), thermometers and light bulbs. 

Other starting points include:
•    Eliminating water bottles and Styrofoam
•    Utilizing reusable dishes and utensils
•    Switching to DEHP-free IV tubing
•    Going latex free
•    Streamline OR custom packs to eliminate waste
•    Consider reusable basins

Is it worth it?
In my opinion, the answer is a resounding "yes!"  Efforts to reduce your environmental footprint can have a direct, positive effect on patient care and healthcare worker well-being. With few exceptions, projects that promote sustainable healthcare also save money. Supporting suppliers who practice sustainable manufacturing perpetuates a culture of responsibility.  And the common goal should be that all efforts benefit, or at least do no harm, to the environment. So, the question for a hospital should not be, "Why should we do this?" but instead "Why shouldn't we do this?"

Related Articles on Environmental Sustainability:

The Energy to Go Green: 5 Changes to Help the Environment and Improve Your Hospital's Bottom Line

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