Thinking Strategically About Sustainability for Healthcare

by Caitlin Moling on Sep 16, 2022


The US health system is known for being one of the most capable and technologically advanced in the world. Unfortunately, despite our country’s continual drive for medical breakthroughs, there is one part of the healthcare industry that receives too little attention: its environmental toll.

The average hospital, for example, generates more than 5 million tons of waste each year. Meanwhile, economy-wide modeling shows pollution rates trending upward, with US healthcare greenhouse gas emissions rising six percent from 2010 to 2018, reaching 1,692 kg per capita in 2018—the highest rate among industrialized nations. As top consumers of the national energy supply, healthcare providers have both financial and environmental incentives to adopt sustainability measures.

For many hospitals looking to understand and better utilize resources, one of the first actions they often take is to hire a sustainability leader and organizer. The American Hospital Association recently reported that “Chief Sustainability Officer” is a quickly growing role in the healthcare setting, and many health systems are adding roles dedicated to environmental stewardship.

As organizations become more mature in their sustainability practices, these initiatives and principles can grow into a comprehensive corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy. The well-known Cleveland Clinic, for example, has a multi-faceted CSR strategy that includes sustainable food sourcing, “green” building standards, aggressive landfill waste reduction and achieving carbon neutrality by 2027.

What Does Sustainability Mean?

Harvard Business Review provides a broad definition of sustainability as, “conducting business without creating negative impact to the environment, community, or society as a whole.”

Although sustainability initiatives might look different for each organization, one common goal is generally consistent: to maintain profitability while paying close attention to a larger purpose. There are plenty of reasons to believe that these concepts do not have to be mutually exclusive.

Sustainability for healthcare is typically focused on three key factors:

  1. Environmental Impact Making the commitment to move toward zero emissions, reducing carbon footprint and greenhouse gas emissions.
  2. Economic Impact – Consciously focusing on zero waste through repurposing, recycling and/or reusing materials or products.
  3. Social Impact – Reaching a state of zero inequality in all interactions (patients, employees, customers and the communities we live in)

Ways to Implement Sustainability Practices in Healthcare

The path forward places increased focus on the unintentional impacts on sustainability caused by healthcare delivery itself. Healthcare providers find themselves in a position where they must strive to overcome and improve their own sustainability footprint.

Sustainable Healthcare Symbolism
We are just beginning to understand what socially conscious organizations look like. Forward-thinking hospitals and health systems realize they can extend their mission for healing the community to take in to account positive contributions to the planet itself. The recent pandemic helped everyone appreciate the lengths healthcare organizations must go to carry out their important missions. Community health can mean so much more than just 1:1 patient interactions.

So what are some of the ways healthcare organizations can build sustainability into their already full plate of strategies?

Go local: According to Mike Reid, vice president of Amerinet Choice Energy Solutions in St. Louis, “Hospital cafeterias serve a lot of food every day. The source of that food can have a dramatic effect on the hospital's environmental impact.”

Local food production will reduce the amount gasoline used to ship and refrigerate food coming from distant locations, while hospitals can also work with a local composting company to get rid of food waste that local farms will later use as fertilizer.

Form a green team: Health systems looking to improve sustainability should form a green team of passionate representatives from across the organization. Instead of relying on a top-down green leadership approach, an embedded team of sustainability-minded volunteers will be able to lead strategic efforts on a broader and more consistent basis.

Start small: Energy usage represents one of the few environmental and financial cost centers hospitals have control over. Referring back to the Cleveland Clinic example, their green team enacted a simple climate-friendly change by installing LED lights in new construction while they updated older buildings. With lighting accounting for one-sixth of the Cleveland Clinic’s energy footprint organization-wide, even this small adjustment made a major impact.

After installing more than 500,000 new bulbs in hospitals, family health centers, and administrative spaces, the organization saved $362,000 a year in utility costs while shrinking annual energy consumption by more than 1.5 million kilowatt hours—the greenhouse gas equivalent of removing 236 passenger vehicles from the road for one year.

Reconsider your supply chain: Over the past few years, hospitals have faced PPE, pharmaceutical, and device shortages as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Most recently, a lockdown at a single Chinese production plant has driven a months-long, worldwide shortage of contrast dye used in medical imaging.

As hospitals have scrambled to adapt, this event has only underscored the need to revamp old processes. While changes will be gradual, healthcare leaders are beginning to reevaluate patient use cases, consider alternative therapies, and diversify supply partners to ensure a more resilient healthcare system in the future.

Imaging Industry Contributions to Sustainability in Healthcare

In the imaging industry alone, recent technology developments will have a direct and positive impact on sustainability.

Today’s High-V MRI systems require a smaller physical footprint, eliminating the need for complex space renovations that were common with installing new systems. This paves the way for more facilities to install newer, more energy-efficient systems. These systems also continue to help hospitals meet sustainability goals by offering a helium-free infrastructure, which allows organizations to install smaller, lighter MRI systems while conserving valuable, hard-to-procure natural resources.

We’ve seen some impressive advances in the area of medical waste disposal as well. WasteMedX uses ozone treatment technology and a seamless transport process to safely, affordably and conscientiously manage medical waste disposal. By changing the way your organization handles medical waste, you can cut your emissions in half, make fewer trips to the landfill, consume less electricity and employ an energy-friendly disinfection process that directly contributes to improving sustainability goals.

It is also important to make sure the equipment you use is up to date. Take steps to ensure your existing imaging equipment is optimized through its service lifecycle. Install necessary software upgrades to improve overall performance and, ultimately, energy consumption.

Healthcare Organizations are Uniquely Qualified to Contribute to Sustainability

Healthcare organizations live by their mission. They must advocate for their patients as well as the communities they serve. Sustainability is one of the ways healthcare entities can contribute to the greater good, and they are clearly stepping up to the challenge.

By moving decisively to address waste, emissions and social inequality, organizations can turn sustainability into a competitive advantage. More importantly, it is the right thing to do for our environment, our communities and for patients.

If Cassling can help your organization achieve its sustainability goals through enhanced imaging system performance, updating or replacing your equipment, or by exploring the many other services we support, such as environmentally conscious medical waste disposal, we are here to help. Reach out and we’ll be glad to talk through your organization’s unique challenges.

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Meet the Author

Caitlin Moling is Cassling’s Director of Research and Strategy. Caitlin provides market intelligence analysis with an emphasis on healthcare policy, industry trends and strategic development. Her educational background includes an MBA and a master’s degree in psychology--a combination she has used to carve out more than a decade of experience in consumer insights and market research. Caitlin has worked as an insights consultant for Forrester Research, Blue Cross Blue Shield and Mintel specializing in insurance and healthcare.

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