From plastic bags containing blood for a transfusion to tubes inserted into the body, many of the products used in hospitals contain chemicals that are known or suspected toxins. Hospital catheters are made with di-ethylhexl phthalates (DEHP), which damage the reproductive system; cancer-causing brominated fire retardants coat furniture - even beds in which patients recuperate.
Over the last few years, there has been a growing movement to bring environmental health into the healthcare environment. Trailblazing non-profit Practice Greenhealth has created tools, trackers, standards, and a supplier directory for hospitals wishing to go green, and eleven American hospital systems are now participating in the Healthier Hospitals Initiative (representing 490 facilities.)
According to a study released today, green healthcare is really beginning to catch on.
In a survey of hospitals in the United States, Italy, Germany, and Brazil commissioned by Johnson & Johnson, sustainability in supplies, architecture, energy consumption, and recycling has become a major concern, with 54 percent of hospitals looking to buy greener products.
The survey of 257 purchasing managers and executives found that 35 percent had already changed suppliers due to "additional green/sustainable product offerings," and that 40 percent of hospitals plan to ask questions about the greenness of products in future bids.
Eighty-five percent of hospitals named some of the same concerns: finding products and devices manufactured without heavy metals or latex, strategies for recycling and waste and increasing energy efficiency for device-laden facilities. (Hospitals are huge energy users, consuming more power than any other type of commercial building.) In Germany, hospitals said their primary concern was complying with environmental regulations; in Brazil, it was concern for the waste stream, including the vast tide of needles and other single-use instruments.
Hospitals generally start to buy green products in the area of administration (a.k.a. office paper recycling) and after that, healthy cafeteria food. Also mentioned was a need for industry-specific devices like DEHP-free IV solutions, and healthier cleaning products.
Johnson & Johnson unveiled the full survey at the CleanMed Europe conference on September 26.
Often under subsidiaries, the company sells a number of green products designed with the EARTHWARDS process, an internal life-cycle assessment that signifies that a medical product has achieved a 10 percent improvement in three of seven areas: materials used, packaging, energy, waste, water, social benefit, and innovation. In the case of its 3600 VITROS blood testing system, according to the company, the EARTHWARDS process cut energy use by 18 percent and liquid waste by 80 percent over the previous design.
To save money, hospitals in the U.S. purchase $135 billion worth of products through a centralized set of networks called Group Purchasing Organizations (GPOs), and these organizations are critical. Five of the largest GPOs announced last year that they would be gathering data in the "Standardized Environmental Questions for Medical Products, Version 1.0" to make comparisons easier for its clients.
In healthcare, "procurement and supply chain professionals are typically not sustainability experts," said Christina Vernon, executive sustainability officer at the Cleveland Clinic. "Engaging them and educating them about the importance of sustainability is key. Suppliers should focus on making it as easy as possible for procurement managers to choose more sustainable options."
There were some interesting "pushes and pulls" that emerged in the survey. European environmental health standards are greening products designed in the U.S. and elsewhere, primarily through the 2003 Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive, which bans heavy metals and two flame retardants in products sold in the E.U. And when it comes to the built environment, the U.S. Green Building Council also has a health-care-specific certification within its LEED rating system.
Keith Sutter, J&J's Sr. Product Director for Sustainable Brand Marketing of Worldwide Environment, Health & Safety, said the most surprising thing for them was the high percentage of interest in green products, and that the interest was so global. He said they hope the report helps spread the news.
“This research will help to demonstrate to our customers and the health care industry that embracing sustainability as the driving factor in greener operations can improve health care and lower operating costs," he said.
The survey was conducted by SK&A in January 2012.
Hannah Miller is a writer, ecologist, and adventurer living in Colorado. She is interested in everything, but particularly in creative sustainability practices, the Internet, arts and culture, the human-machine interaction, and democracy. She's lived in Shanghai, New York, L.A., Philadelphia, and D.C., and taught English, run political campaigns, waited tables, and written puppet shows. She definitely wants to hear what you're up to. You can reach her at @hannahmiller215, email at golden.notebook at gmail.com or at her site: www.hannahmiller.net.