Sustainability in Healthcare

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By Sharon Muli*

In the United States, healthcare facilities are estimated to be responsible for generating over 5.9 million tons of waste annually and for producing 8% of the carbon footprint.  The buildings themselves that are used in health care, the products used by physicians, and the energy consumed to operate the buildings and medical devices all contribute to the environmental impacts of the healthcare industry. The healthcare industry produces many negative environmental impacts, but this creates many opportunities for positive change.

Hospitals are becoming more sustainable

As with many industries, the healthcare industry is increasingly embracing sustainability.  A recent research study commissioned by Johnson & Johnson, titled The Growing Importance of More Sustainable Products in the Global Health Care Industry, found that 54% of hospitals say green attributes are very important in their purchasing decisions.  In addition, 35% of hospitals switched suppliers due to additional green/sustainable product offerings.

When hospitals choose to purchase from more sustainable suppliers, referred to as Environmentally Preferable Purchasing, they are filling their hospital with more sustainable products and helping to drive sustainability up their supply chain.  Many other areas within hospitals themselves can also be improved.

Hospitals can reduce the waste that is generated and sent to landfills.  Because medical waste is often hazardous to human health and costly to dispose of, reducing the quantity of waste is beneficial to the environment, human health, and the bottom line.

According to a survey by the US EIA, hospitals are the second-most-energy-intensive building type per square foot, with an average 234 kBTU per square foot per year. Improvements can be made to buildings during their construction and operation in areas including HVAC systems, lighting, water consumption, rainwater infrastructure, and more.  Hospitals may choose to become LEED certified (a certification system for buildings with sustainable and energy efficient design).  While the cost premium of these hospitals was found to be 1.24%, “A modest investment, if any, will yield a spectrum of benefits to patients and staff and to the hospital’s direct bottom line, and will align with the healthcare sector’s fundamental mission of ‘do no harm.’”

Hospitals feed many individuals on a daily basis, so the sustainability of the food served should be a consideration.  Food can be improved by purchasing local food that is transported shorter distances or food produced without hormones or pesticides.

The primary purpose of hospitals is, of course, to improve health.  Therefore, the chemicals used to clean and disinfect hospitals should not be harmful to our health.  Hospitals are transitioning to use chemicals that are safer for both human health and the environment.

Companies like Johnson & Johnson are improving the sustainability of healthcare products

Suppliers like Johnson & Johnson are helping to ensure that they are meeting the demands of their customers by developing more sustainable products.  Johnson & Johnson’s Earthwards program was developed to drive the development of more sustainable products by making improvements in seven areas:  Energy, Materials, Waste, Packaging, Water, Social, and Innovation.

The company’s Earthwards website offers examples of improvements made to products used in healthcare, including:

  • A medical device that generates less liquid waste: The Ortho Clinical Diagnostics VITROS® 3600 Immunodiagnostic System generates 80% less liquid waste during use than the earlier version.
  • A wound care product in a smaller box made of more sustainable materials: SURGICEL® Brand Absorbable Hemostats use 50% less packaging material and 100% more sustainable packaging materials than the previous version.
  • A pharmaceutical drug that is manufactured using less water: NUCYNTA® Tapentadol is now manufactured using 78% less water than previous production methods.

Johnson & Johnson is also helping hospitals deal with their waste through the recently acquired company SterilMed, which “offers products and services including medical device reprocessing, equipment repair, and pre-owned equipment sales that help healthcare providers lower their medical device and equipment costs, while reducing the amount of environmental waste they generate.”  By reprocessing medical devices, both equipment costs and environmental waste are reduced.

Hospitals that would like to learn more about greening their operations can use resources including:

Join this conversation at the “Metrics that Matter, Messages that Motivate:  Making the Right Case for Sustainability in Healthcare” conference on December 4, 2013 at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.  It is hosted by Wharton IGEL and Johnson & Johnson and will focus on the key drivers of sustainability and explore what benefits/outcomes are most compelling to the different players.

Sharon Muli is a 2013 graduate of the Master of Environmental Studies program at the University of Pennsylvania and completed her capstone project on the impact of sustainability rankings on companies in the healthcare industry.  She worked as a co-op in the Worldwide Environmental, Health & Safety group at Johnson & Johnson for a year.  During this experience, Sharon attended the 2013 CleanMed conference and her responsibilities included documenting and communicating the sustainable improvements of products through the Earthwards program. 

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