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 Boynton is editor in chief of TriplePundit and editorial director at 3BL Media. With over 6 million annual readers, TriplePundit is the leading publication on sustainable business and the Triple Bottom Line. Prior to TriplePundit, Jen received an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School. In her work with TriplePundit she's helped clients from SAP to PwC to Fair Trade USA with their sustainability communications messaging. When she's not at work, she volunteers as a CASA -- court appointed special advocate for children in the foster care system. She enjoys losing fights with toddlers and eating toast scraps. She lives with her family in sunny San Diego.

4 responses

  1. Yeah, I feel like it’s a tough topic. I ride BART and see the “Thank you from..” ad campaign, and it just doesn’t seem to track. At the same time, I’ve been a Kaiser member my whole life and feel like I’ve never got anything but good service from them. Obviously, good service and attention doesn’t equal sustainability, but it does also seem like they care about their presence in the community.

  2. I’m a former Kaiser employee (in a central/corporate function) and will say that Kaiser is many different organizations. My observation is that Kaiser is working to implement whole systems thinking regarding member health and care – understanding that health care is as much about getting & keeping people healthy as it is about treating people after they get sick. It’s also why there is focus on getting more healthy food into Kaiser hospitals and communities.
    In terms of functions not directly related to care delivery, I didn’t see much evidence of systems thinking or sustainability. Even basic recycling was not universal in central offices. That is probably why we don’t see the direct link between the Thrive campaign and how Kaiser folks talk about it. I suspect that Kaiser is another example of an organization that is trying, and given its organizational complexity, will take time to evolve.

  3. Nicely said, Jen. As a 15-year Kaiser employee your views resonate with me. Kaiser may have been cutting edge five or ten years ago implementing things like the farmers markets and green purchasing programs, but it’s time for a much bigger, systemic sustainability strategy. With health reform forefront on the nation’s agenda, we have the opportunity to apply tools like whole systems thinking and natural capitalism; health reform can’t be separated from the issues of natural resource limits, climate change, and economic collapse. Thrive puts a great face on the organization and presents an inspiring vision, but true authenticity and transparency are required today.

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