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Michelle Obama, Kaiser Permanente and the Link Between Sustainability and Health Care

Kathryn Siranosian | Friday February 12th, 2010 | 4 Comments

What do initiatives like Let’s Move! and the Partnership for a Healthier America, the new foundation which boasts First Lady Michelle Obama (above) as its Honorary Chair, have to do with sustainability?

Plenty.

Just ask Loel Solomon, vice president of Community Health Initiatives at Kaiser Permanente.

Kaiser Permanente, one of America’s leading health care providers and not-for-profit health plans, helped create the Partnership for a Healthier America, a non-partisan organization launched this week to address the serious national epidemic of childhood obesity.

And according to Solomon, efforts like this precisely illustrate how health care is inextricably entwined with environmental stewardship and even broader issues of sustainability. After all, The Partnership for a Healthier America was established to help facilitate improved understanding among all sectors about the role healthy food, physical activity and the environment play in good health. That means the foundation will be advocating for bike trails, sidewalks, community gardens, and a wide range of other issues commonly found on the pages of TriplePundit, Solomon says.

“It’s about connecting the dots,” he explains. “Or, to put it simply: what we need to do to save the planet is directly related to what we need to do to save people.”

Spend a few minutes talking to Solomon and it becomes clear that Kaiser Permanente, an integrated health care delivery system that serves more than 8.6 million members in nine states and the District of Columbia, has made significant investments in a variety of programs that, like the Partnership for a Healthier America, “connect the dots” between health care and sustainability.

Environmental stewardship

For starters, Kaiser Permanente has pioneered environmental stewardship in the health care sector. The company played a key role in developing nationally recognized green building strategies, and Kaiser Permanente’s Modesto (CA) Medical Center has earned national recognition as one of the “greenest” health care facilities in North America.

In addition, the company uses eco-friendly procurement and supply strategies, focuses on green aspects of Information Technology, and has championed medical device reprocessing. In fact, Kaiser Permanente’s Single-Use Medical Device Reprocessing program, which includes many of the high-volume usage products approved for reprocessing by the United States Food and Drug Administration, now reduces landfill waste by 7.6 tons annually (based on data for a typical 250-bed medical facility)and delivers more than $3.2 million in savings each year.

Community involvement

But, according to Solomon, Kaiser Permanente’s record with environmental stewardship is only part of the company’s overall sustainability plan. Kaiser Permanente also is committed to several community-based programs designed to “surround people with good health,” he says.

These days, most health care organizations sponsor some sort of community outreach, such as health screenings, smoking cessation classes, etc.  To Solomon, services like these are today’s “baseline,” a fundamental responsibility for any health care group.

Kaiser goes beyond these basic services to advocate for community-wide changes, particularly in the areas of transportation/land use and food. In 2007, Kaiser Permanente invested more than $54.5 million in Community Health Initiatives and related programs.

From the company’s website:

What does health look like? It’s more than an absence of illness. It’s a safe route for kids to ride their bikes to school. A grocery store stocked with fresh produce. Parks and playgrounds that welcome families. Bike trails that promote exercise. Farmers Markets that bring fresh fruits and vegetables to neighborhood centers. Educational Theater Programs that reach out to school kids with powerful messages about food, exercise and healthy choices. Our Community Health Initiatives take a prevention-driven approach to health, focusing on policies and environmental changes that promote healthy eating and active living.

As Solomon explains, it’s about “creating the right defaults.”

For instance, the Partnership for a Healthier America was created to support four pillars first established by Michelle Obama and Let’s Move! Those pillars are:

  • Providing parents the tools and information they need to make healthy choices for their kids
  • Offering healthier food in our nation’s schools
  • Ensuring that families have access to healthy, affordable food in their communities
  • Increasing opportunities for kids to be physically active, both in and out of school

“You can’t solve the obesity problem by addressing it one-at-a-time in the doctor’s office,” Solomon says. “Sure it’s necessary to focus on individual behavior and do evidence-based prevention in the exam room. But, it’s insufficient. You also need to surround people with healthy choices.”

And, ultimately, that’s what ties sustainability and health care so closely together.

“A good solution solves many problems,” Solomon concludes.

What do you see as the intersection of health care and sustainability? Is there a health care organization in your area that stands out for its commitment to environmental stewardship and/or community involvement?


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