How Kaiser Permanente is driving environmental stewardship and sustainability forward –4 Qs answered

Oakland, Calif.-based Kaiser Permanente, recognized as one of America's leading healthcare organizations, currently serves over 12.5 million members in eight states and the District of Columbia. Kaiser Permanente has a long history of environmental stewardship and views sustainability as the intersection of climate change, health, and equity.

In advance of Earth Day 2022, Becker's Hospital Review recently spoke with Seema Wadhwa, executive director of environmental stewardship at Kaiser Permanente. Ms. Wadhwa discussed Kaiser Permanente's sustainability initiatives and offered advice for health system leaders looking to make sustainability a more significant priority.

Editor's note: Responses were lightly edited for clarity and length.

Question: Why is sustainability important to Kaiser Permanente? What are the origins of sustainability efforts at Kaiser Permanente?

Seema Wadhwa: A strong commitment to the community is part of the ethos of Kaiser Permanente. This commitment to the community has been reflected in a long history of environmental stewardship, going back to the 1960s and 1970s. As early as the 1960s, Kaiser Permanente hosted a conference looking at how the environment impacts health. In the 1970s, company engineers built solar panels for heating hot water at Kaiser Permanente facilities. Focusing on the community and the environment is just part of who we are.

About 20 years ago Kaiser Permanente created a dedicated position focused on environmental stewardship, with a goal of driving change. We see environmental health and community health as directly related.

Q: How does Kaiser Permanente think about the intersection between climate change, health and equity?

SW: While Kaiser Permanente's early environmental activities focused on the connection between the environment and health, Kaiser Permanente now thinks of sustainability at the intersection of climate change, health and equity. That's because while climate change impacts health, it doesn't impact everyone equally. Those who are most impacted by climate change are disproportionately those in communities of color, low-income children and the elderly. Improving the health of the communities that Kaiser Permanente serves means focusing on this intersection.

Q: What current sustainability initiatives do you have underway and do you have any plans to expand these initiatives in the future?

SW: One of Kaiser Permanente's initiatives is development and use of a community health needs assessment tool that looks at eight key factors related to climate and environment. This tool can identify communities where climate and environment are rising to the top in terms of community needs. This tool can correlate with data showing the racial composition of a community.

Another important initiative has been Kaiser Permanente's focus on carbon neutrality. In 2020, Kaiser Permanente become the first health system in the United States to achieve carbon neutrality, driven by decreasing energy consumption and shifting to renewable energy.

One initiative followed major fires in Santa Rosa, California — which forced Kaiser Permanente to close a hospital in the area for a period of time. As part of this initiative, Kaiser Permanente is training a workforce to mitigate the risk of future catastrophic wildfires by supporting workforce development programs focused on “pre-defeating” wildfires and protecting homes through vegetation management and fire-resilient landscaping.

Q: What advice do you have for other health system leaders starting or expanding their sustainability efforts?

SW: First of all, you can't do it alone. No individual leader or health system can bring about the change that is required by acting alone. Progress requires cooperation and collaboration across the healthcare sector.

Health system leaders can use their voices to highlight the intersection of climate change and health and encourage their teams to do the same. Doctors and nurses are some of the most trusted voices in the community. They can use their trusted voices to convey that climate change is a personal health issue; for example, climate change can affect allergies and asthma.

Health leaders also can look at their organizations' own environmental impact. There are actions that health systems can take to reduce emissions that can actually produce cost savings. For this reason, leaders also need to make sure to bring finance teams to the table.

Q: How have you worked with suppliers to advance your sustainability goals? How can suppliers and health systems partner to accelerate progress toward net zero goals?

SW: Kaiser Permanente sees suppliers, like Cardinal Health, as partners and realizes the best opportunities to drive change are by working together. We've worked with suppliers to develop new packaging solutions that reduce the amount of waste generated.

Also, Kaiser Permanente has developed transparent standards around environmentally preferrable purchasing. The organization looks at its spending in terms of environmental stewardship as well as its diverse spend and local spend. It looks holistically at its impact on the community.

Also in the spirit of "you can't do it alone," Kaiser Permanente is supporting the National Academy of Medicine's Action Collaborative on Decarbonizing the U.S. Healthcare Sector.

Kaiser Permanente's deep commitment to the communities it serves and its focus on environmental stewardship is reflected in everything the organization does, including its strategies, investments, and partnerships. It's part of Kaiser Permanente's legacy, values, culture, priorities, and actions.

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