We’ve heard a lot about how health care spending in the US is not sustainable. Thus, we are focusing on becoming more efficient, at promoting not just our quality but our value, and of pursuing the so-called “triple aim” of better care, improved patient outcomes, and lower cost.
But health care is unsustainable in another way, too – environmentally. The health care sector is an important, and in many cases disproportionate, source of solid waste, water consumption, and energy use, all of which contribute to our outsized carbon footprint. Here is just one statistic: hospitals have 2.5 times the energy intensity and carbon dioxide emissions of other commercial buildings.
Although the links between the environment and health are clear, we providers and others in the health care industry have not traditionally included environmental considerations as a key element in our decision-making. It’s not a major part of our culture. But this is starting to change. A number of organizations and coalitions have emerged in recent years in an effort to make the health care sector more green.
Some are focused primarily on the environmental impact of health care facilities. One such organization is the Healthier Hospitals Initiative, comprised of some 475 hospitals from 11 large health systems. They aim to get hospitals to reduce energy and waste, choose safer and less toxic products, and purchase and serve healthier foods. One HHI member is Gundersen Lutheran, based in LaCrosse, which aims to be energy independent by the end of 2013, and has a stated goal of being the first hospital to be carbon neutral. Other organizations are more broadly focused on environmental issues, dealing not only with the impact of health care on the environment, but of the environment on health. Health Care Without Harm and Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments are among those who are also engaging in education and advocacy efforts to improve local and global environments to promote better health for their patients and populations.
Too often we ignore the environmental impact of the care we provide. But if we are serious about our vision of the children in Wisconsin being the healthiest in the nation, we need to begin to include such considerations into how we think about what we do. There is growing evidence that not only will it improve the health of our community, but also lead to lower costs in the long run. After all, all waste is in some way, well, wasteful. In fact, those who work on sustainability talk about the “triple bottom line”: healthier people, greater environmental sustainability, and improved profitability (a.k.a. people, planet, and profit). Sounds suspiciously like that “triple aim.” In future columns we’ll explore some specific things we might do, but in the meantime, I urge you to think how we – as individuals and as an organization – can improve our triple bottom line.