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Sustainable Healthcare

With public health and climate change both at the forefront of global issues, right now is an opportune time for hospitals and healthcare facilities to shift towards a more sustainable way of operation. Today, healthcare facilities are facing significant financial and regulatory pressures to make this transition in order to improve operational efficiency, enhance patient care, and reduce their carbon footprint. As seen with other businesses going green, healthcare facilities implementing sustainable and ethical practices reap many benefits including:

  • Lower utility bills and other operational costs
  • Elevated brand and positive image
  • Greater employee satisfaction and retention
  • Patient and community trust
  • Lower carbon footprint and environmental impact

Most importantly, sustainable healthcare systems improve public health by contributing to healthier, more resilient communities and combating poor institutional practices that yield pollution, waste, and resource exhaustion. Improving operational efficiency also allocates funding and resources for better patient care. This article explores five different ways a healthcare facility can improve its efficiency and sustainability performance.

1. Improve energy efficiency and invest in alternative energy sources

Establishing sustainability in healthcare begins with evaluating and improving facilities’ rate of energy consumption and overall efficiency. The answer lies within better building design and construction and can be achieved through several certification programs and rating systems offered today such as the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program. One community hospital in Wisconsin is now saving $800,000 annually after retrofitting the facility with energy-saving alterations.

While it largely depends on city and state regulations, market factors, and resource availability, it is possible for hospitals to take advantage of alternative energy as another way to lower their grid demand and carbon footprint. Investments in onsite renewable energy can be costly upfront but the financial savings and environmental benefits pay off those costs in the long-term.

There are several strategies for building and retrofitting healthcare facilities to improve energy efficiency and operate more sustainably:

  • Improve building insulation and ventilation
  • Install ENERGY STAR certified ceiling fans, motion sensor lights, and low-flow water fixtures
  • Utilize large windows for natural lighting and warmth
  • Invest in solar
  • Ensure proper sealing of windows and doors to avoid air leakage
  • Install automatic doors to better manage airflow from high foot traffic
  • Use indoor plants as natural air purifiers and plant trees to provide shade outside

2. Redesign transportation systems to be more eco-friendly

With fleets of ambulances, hospital transport vehicles, and staff and patient travel, the transportation emissions surrounding healthcare facilities is HIGH. Thankfully cities worldwide are beginning to adopt greener forms of commute which means redesigning the healthcare transportation system should become easier over time.

Here are some solutions that healthcare facilities should consider when evaluating their current transportation system:

  • Promote the use of public transport and provide staff and patients with easy access
  • Provide incentives for staff to use alternative transportation such as discounted bus passes, interest-free bicycle loans, or a ride-sharing program. For Addenbrooke’s Hospital in the U.K., these measures reduced staff car on campus by 22%.
  • Invest in alternative fuels for hospital vehicles. Pitt County Memorial Hospital in Greenville, North Carolina, runs all of its fleet vehicles on B20, a blended fuel containing 20% biodiesel, and is the first hospital in the U.S. to have an onsite biodiesel fueling station.
  • Implement eco-driving training for ambulance drivers. One of the leading ambulance providers in Stockholm, Sweden, launched the Green Ambulance Project to train drivers on eco-driving, a driving style that reduces fuel consumption and supports safer travel. The program found that eco-driving lowered fuel consumption by as much as 10% with no increased risk to patients.

3. Reduce waste generation and reinvent waste management

Perhaps the biggest barrier to being a sustainable hospital or clinic is the improper and inefficient disposal of medical supplies and waste. Hospitals alone produce over 5 million tons of waste each year while slightly more than half (58%) of healthcare facilities have adequate waste disposal systems.

The following strategies can be implemented to adopt a greener waste management system:

Segregation of waste streams

Separating different waste types – general, infectious, sharps, etc. – reduces contamination risks, sharps-related injuries, and toxic exposure from handling. Proper sorting also improves the efficiency of waste and recycling processing and lowers the costs required for special treatment of hazardous wastes.

Green purchasing to reduce waste

Hospitals can implement green purchasing policies to buy products made of eco-friendly materials and minimal packaging and those that can be sterilized and reused.

Sustainable waste management

Establishing a sustainable waste management program can put a limit on the amount of wastes undergoing incineration or being transferred to landfills, and eliminate unnecessary sources of waste. The program should include ways to improve infectious waste processing such as autoclaving, thermal disinfection, and microwave sanitation. Additionally, partnering with local waste facilities can reduce the distance it takes to dispose of waste and the associated emissions released.

4. Conserve water

Beyond energy, healthcare facilities are also highly water-intensive. Most notably, water conservation efforts lower water-utility and sewer costs as well as the energy costs from water heaters, HVAC systems, and refrigeration that require water to run. Water conservation also preserves regional water supplies and supports community resilience.

Here are some simple water conservation initiatives for healthcare facilities:

  • Install low-flow toilets, faucets, and shower heads
  • Replace flush valves on toilets and replace outdated pump systems
  • Assess pipes and water fixtures for leaks and repair immediately
  • Upgrade to more efficient HVAC and refrigeration systems
  • Implement facility-wide water conservation projects such as harvesting rainwater for non-drinking purposes

Within three years, Norwood Hospital in Massachusetts cut its water use from 51.2 to 36.6 million gallons a year by adopting some of the above water conservation processes.

5. Create a sustainable healthcare culture

Worldwide, businesses and institutions are establishing long-term plans to lower their environmental impact and aid in the fight against climate change. More than just purchasing a single piece of energy-efficient equipment or enforcing a recycling policy, improving sustainability performance requires healthcare facilities to create a green company culture that empowers employees and guides action.

From the largest medical centers to quaint health clinics, these suggested initiatives can help any healthcare facility cultivate a purpose-driven mindset within the workplace and achieve green goals:

  • Create a green mission statement to outline sustainability goals.
  • Form a green team to allocate focused attention to achieving sustainability goals.
  • Promote engagement from staff across all occupations and departments. Participation and leadership from upper management is critical for facility-wide success.
  • Educate and train staff on how to implement green practices in the workplace and at home.
  • Track and analyze progress routinely. Seek feedback from staff to further evaluate green initiatives.
  • Collaborate with other stakeholders such as corporate sponsors, sustainability associations, government organizations, educational institutions, and environmental legislation compliance bodies.

Executive Summary: Successful Healthcare is Sustainable Healthcare

Healthcare facilities serve as the fundamental centers for treating the ill, providing healing and nourishment, and protecting public health. It only makes sense that these facilities also preserve environmental wellbeing too.

When backed by executive leadership and government support, healthcare facilities can drive the shift towards sustainability and be powerful forces of change within their communities. Lowering operational costs and resource consumption through sustainable healthcare practices translates into savings that can be used to improve patient care and build healthier, more resilient communities.

For healthcare workers, committing to sustainability is a semblance of the hippocratic oath, one of the oldest binding documents in history and a promise to protect the wellbeing of humanity.

About the Author

Jane Li

GBB Green Ambassador

Jane Li is a healthcare entrepreneur with a love for educating the public on the link between sustainability and public health. She has a particular interest in creating sustainable healthcare systems through improved operational efficiency and resource conservation. Jane holds a Master’s degree in Public Health and specializes in environmental and occupational health. She currently lives in beautiful British Columbia, Canada, home to lush forests and magnificent ocean waters.

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