By Brooke Nally
It shouldn’t be surprising that an industry founded on the tenet of “do no harm” is seeking ways to become more sustainable. The Healthier Hospitals Initiative (HHI) is a national call for health systems to improve patient care and cut costs by changing the way they approach healthcare — from hospital design to daily operations.
The movement does more than give lip service to environmental concerns and improved outcomes, however. The HHI uses evidence-based research and real data about the correlation between community health and sustainability to help facilities move from simply having good ideas to implementing changes that positively impact individual patients and entire communities.
Big blayers lead the charge
Twelve of the nation’s most influential health systems worked with Practice Greenhealth, the Center for Health Design and Health Care Without Harm (HCWH) to gather data and develop the HHI’s guidelines. More than 500 hospitals, representing over $20 billion in purchasing power, came together with the united purpose of making the American healthcare system more sustainable.
Those 12 founding health systems brought more than 1,200 enrollees to the table and provided a vast amount of data that helped move HHI from theory to practice. The result is a focused, detailed framework that can be fully implemented in any healthcare organization, no matter how large or small.
Key focus areas define and guide HHI practices
Environmental change doesn’t happen overnight, nor does it come with one easy panacea, so the HHI uses a multi-pronged approach to address this complex problem. The program identifies six key focus areas — engaged leadership, healthier foods, leaner energy, less waste, safer chemicals, and smarter purchasing — and provides step-by-step tiered challenges to help facilities make progress toward sustainability and overall community health.
These focus areas guide hospitals and other health organizations that seek to improve care and save money. And in the terms of the HHI’s goals, few areas offer as much room for progress and development as the leaner energy initiative.
Because hospitals operate life-saving equipment that requires uninterrupted power, healthcare facilities use a disproportionate amount of energy, with costs that exceed $10 billion annually. Recent research estimates that energy and waste interventions could save more than $5 billion over the first five years and as much as $15 billion over 10 years. Those savings add up to a big impact on overall healthcare costs.
Broad changes that deliver individual results
It might be easy to grasp the impact to the bottom line for an individual hospital, but it’s more difficult to see how large-scale changes make a difference to the end-user — in this case, the patient. The HHI speaks to that need by addressing consumer health concerns on two major fronts: the environmental impact on long-term health and the operating costs that are passed on to the patient.
Chronic diseases that require lifetime treatment and symptom management account for approximately 86 percent of all healthcare expenses. Environmental factors like pollution and emissions contribute to the epidemic of chronic disease afflicting the population.
Ironically, hospitals are one of the biggest offenders when it comes to pollution — the healthcare industry’s carbon footprint accounted for nearly a tenth of the country’s carbon emissions upon last measurement. Given that conditions like asthma and chronic bronchitis are aggravated by carbon dioxide and other pollutants, healthcare facilities have unwittingly added to the very problems they work to treat.
The HHI aims to help facilities benchmark their energy use, which will help reduce the production of harmful emissions and their impact on patients and local communities. That increased sustainability will have the twofold effect of lessening environmentally influenced disease — thus lowering the need for expensive long-term care — and helping to reduce hospital overhead costs, allowing hospital managers to pass some savings on to their patients.
The challenges of changing a mindset
Despite some of the clear benefits of making healthy changes for both hospitals and those they serve, movement away from a set of traditional standards and practices won’t be easy for everyone. Each of the HHI initiatives will require hospital-wide adjustments, including efforts to plan and enforce the transition. And while the long-term cost savings could be substantial, the initial investment required to become truly sustainable may seem prohibitive for smaller hospitals.
As more health systems commit to change, whether it’s swapping out lights for bulbs that use less energy, redesigning more efficient HVAC systems, or installing solar panels, the effects will reinforce the universal benefits of the initiative and make things easier for small, independent facilities. However, that puts a lot of pressure on those organizations paving the way to sustain a critical mass of responsibility and engagement. At this point, only time will tell if the trend will gain the needed momentum to make a lasting change in the industry.
From waste production and energy use to inventory management and chemical purchasing, the HHI has identified several places where hospitals can change their environmental impact. In the coming years, the American public can only hope that those changes will start a domino effect, helping facilities provide better patient care, reduce healthcare costs, and curb practices that contribute to chronic disease in their communities.
Image credit: Pixabay
Based out of Salt Lake City, Utah, Brooke is the content coordinator for SolarPowerAuthority. She is a solar expert with a love for all things eco, including smart green design, hydroponic grow systems, green business initiatives, and sustainable living off the grid. You can contact her via Twitter; @brookenally.