How VHA is a CSR Leader in the Health Care Industry

New York Presbyterian Hospital, a VHA member
New York Presbyterian Hospital, a VHA member

Discussions about corporate social responsibility (CSR) often focus on large corporations, energy companies, and industries like apparel and food processing. In the United States, however, 1 out of 6 dollars goes toward health care costs. That 16% slice of the American economy obviously has huge impacts on our society, the environment, and on corporate governance.

To that end, I recently talked with Terri Scannell, Director of Corporate Citizenship and Sustainability for VHA, a health care cooperative that includes over 1400 non-for-profit hospitals and over 24,000 non-acute health care facilities in 47 states and Washington, DC.  Our chat covered what VHA is doing on the CSR front, and provides some background on the sustainability initiatives of some VHA member hospitals.

Triple Pundit:  What are some ways that VHA is working with its not-for-profit hospital members to increase their focus on CSR initiatives, specifically sustainability, and why?

Terri Scannell: Hospitals have a big environmental footprint due to their 24/7 operating cycle.  Compounding the environmental problem are the inefficiencies and costs associated with inefficient and therefore, operations that are unsustainable in the long run. VHA members have looked to us for help.

VHA hospitals share ideas and collaborate on ways to improve the care they deliver, increase their efficiencies and decrease their costs.  While most hospitals have established baseline activities like recycling programs, there is growing interest in learning about other ways to reduce waste and energy use–crucial because their operations run 24 hours a day with no break.

VHA supports several sustainability resources including an Environmental Advisory Group.  Through VHA’s supply contracting company, Novation, the company brought these leaders together to work with hospital supply companies on ways to produce environmentally-sustainable products.  Just last year, the group sent a letter to more than 500 suppliers asking them to incorporate sustainability into their practices.

These initiatives include: minimizing packaging, using recycled and recyclable content in products and packaging, supporting device re-manufacturing, disclosing all information regarding the chemical and material composition of products, reducing the amount of energy and water in manufacturing and distribution, investing in the use of alternative energy sources for manufacturing and distribution, moving toward sustainable and renewable raw materials, and supporting organizations that extend the life of surplus equipment and supplies.

Since we have such a large network, we launched a collaboration web site that gives members access to sustainability plan templates, case studies, and expert tips.  Member hospitals and clinics then have the tools they need to green their supply chains, develop energy management programs, and boost their sustainability efforts.  We are also collect data from suppliers that detail the environmental savings of the products and services the companies provide – factoring in reduction in water usage, carbon output, waste production and energy usage – and pass that information along to members so they can make informed decisions about the products they purchase.

3p:  How has VHA increased its focus on sustainability?

TS: This year VHA committed to the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) framework for reporting on CSR activities.  After producing its annual CSR report card for three years based our company’s model, VHA agreed to adopt the GRI standard to increase our accountability and transparency. In addition, our work to move to the GRI reporting framework is a first step in piloting a program to help our members determine the best framework for externally reporting their successes and challenges.

3p:  What are some of the more interesting or innovative sustainability programs VHA’s members are undertaking and sharing with others?

TS: Member hospitals usually start their journey with sustainability by investing in projects that reduce energy consumption and increase operational efficiencies.  Because hospitals operate 24/7 and are generally the largest energy users in their communities, investment in energy efficiency translates to immediate reduced costs and provides more money to spend on improved patient care.

Most of our member hospitals have created a sustainability coordinator position to increase direct accountability for managing CSR efforts.  The sustainability coordinator is responsible for implementing the CSR strategy, championing the tactics and developing measurement tools.  Successful programs will have a cross-functional Green Team and senior level support to integrate sustainability initiatives.

What I hear over and over from our members is how the focus on zero waste drives hospital staff to come together to find innovative solutions.  For example, at Providence Health & Services, with hospitals in the western United States, nurses noted that many times meals were delivered while a patient was out of the room having tests run, resulting in the patient returning to a cold meal that was thrown away.  To reduce this waste, hospital staff worked with food services to create a meals-on-demand system, rather than delivering meals at set times.  With this system, Providence both reduced food waste and related energy costs associated with preparing a meal that wouldn’t be eaten, as well as increased patient satisfaction.

farmers market, New York Presbyterian Hospital
farmers market, New York Presbyterian Hospital

One highly unusual hospital/community collaboration that is helping to offset energy usage is a partnership between Gundersen Lutheran Health System and City Brewery, both based in La Crosse, Wis.  While you wouldn’t normally think of a hospital pairing up with a brewery, the two have created a system where waste bio-gas discharged from City Brewery’s waste treatment process is turned into electricity and used to offset five percent of the electricity used on Gundersen Lutheran’s campuses in La Crosse and Onalaska, Wis.

Other programs of note are Providence Health & Services efforts in Portland, Oregon to send its food waste to a facility to compost and sell it at a local garden store, and New York-Presbyterian Hospital’s onsite farmer’s market in downtown New York City (pictured to the left).

More information on VHA’s Corporate Citizenship and Sustainability is here.

Leon Kaye is Editor of; you can follow him on Twitter.


Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

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