Is Sustainability “Thriving” at Kaiser Permanente?


If I mentioned Sustainable Medicine to you, you’d probably have a whole host of ideas about what that means: affordable health care for everyone, preventative treatment, direct connection with a doctor, healthy food served in hospitals and reduced toxics in medical supplies.
Kaiser Permanente was well represented at Sustainable Brands conference in Monterey with both a plenary on their marketing campaign and several breakout sessions. Kaiser claims to set the bar high, with their Thrive advertising campaign which makes the connection between environmental health and personal health. As examples of this groundbreaking systemic approach to health, presenters touted their 35 farmers markets at their hospitals, their green purchasing campaign to reduce toxics in the medical supplies they use, and increased use of green cleaning products in clinical settings. The speakers I heard were not particularly passionate or excited or even experienced talking about the wonderful things happening at Kaiser, so as a listener, I was left unimpressed.

While the first few steps being made by Kaiser are certainly commendable, the presenters didn’t make the case to me that they added up to a true company-wide emphasis on systemic sustainability that matches the beautiful vision of Thrive. That ad campaign is inspirational but I was not convinced that it was being carried through by employees at Kaiser in a whole systems sort of way. Given the host of possible ways to green health care, and the other groundbreaking sustainability commitments on show at the conference, continued touting of some farmers markets seems a bit lacking and piecemeal. I was left a little disappointed by how poorly that gorgeous Thrive campaign appears to be embedded in the company’s day to day operations.
I raised these thoughts with a friend who happens to be a KP member, and she told me a moving story about her experience getting treatment for a difficult-to-diagnose heath problem that worsened over the course of several months. She had efficient, effective, and personal connections and treatment with every member of the staff from the initial phone consultation with prescriptions to internet based scheduling for her appointments, and e-mail follow up from a doctor who remembered her and shared her frustration over the difficulty in finding an effective course of treatment. It was clear to me from her story that the whole systems approach to heath is indeed in effect at Kaiser, whether or not its actually connected to this ad campaign.
So what does this all mean for sustainability at Kaiser? Someone in marketing sure gets the importance of the system wide approach for health care, and their operations certainly follow suit with efficient and effective health care. However, there is a big missing piece of overall strategy for the company in terms of rolling out and communicating their comprehensive sustainability message.
Readers, what do you think? If a company walks the talk in day-to-day operations, and they have a pretty ad campaign, does it matter if those two are not connected through a systemic top-down emphasis on sustainability?

Jen Boynton

Jen is editor in chief of TriplePundit. She has an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School and lives in Oakland with her husband and normally happy baby. 
Hit her up at on twitter @jenboynton to discuss diapering strategies or sustainability reporting methodology.