HEALTH – What can America teach us about sustainable healthcare?

12 July 2016

Debbie Wilson, sustainability officer at Middlemore Hospital travelled to Dallas, Texas in May. It seems they might be making sustainability aspirations bigger there along with everything else.

Debbie was impressed to see The CleanMed Conference embrace a holistic view of a sustainable health system. This included locally-sourced food, transportation, facilities, energy, waste, and healthcare supply chains.

“Attendees understood their health systems mission was to heal, to support healthy communities. They recognised the important connection between human health and the environment,” she says. “I came away believing we are at a turning point in the awareness and need for action in addressing climate change due to the threat to our collective human health.”

The Conference’s Keynote speaker was Dr. Raymond Baxter, President of Kaiser Permanente International. Kaiser has committed to being Carbon Net Positive by 2025. Kaiser has created 10 year stewardship goals covering food, waste reduction, water conservation and purchasing safer products. 

This set the tone for this broader view of healthcare responsibility. 

Purchasing

At the Conference a group of some of the region’s largest healthcare providers announced the establishment of their own sustainable procurement co-operative. It is similar in intent to the Sustainable Business Network’s Smart Procurement project. Called Greenhealth Exchange, it assists healthcare providers to select and purchase the latest innovations in sustainable products and services. 

Transport

Transport in the US generates 29% of the total greenhouse gas emissions. This is a similar level as here in New Zealand. Hospitals are one of the largest employers and are heavily involved in transporting people and goods.

An example of how hospitals can take a lead came from Seattle Children’s Hospital. It reduced its single occupancy vehicle rate to 38% of employees in 2015. It offers free bicycles to employees who commit to biking to work at least twice per week. This and other changes allowed the hospital to avoid the construction of US$25 million worth of parking.

Food

Serving locally produced foods in health care connects patients, staff and visitors to their food system. It supports regional producers, creating farm viability and local jobs.

But it can be a challenge to find and source local products for a hospital. Beaumont Health has taken a collaborative approach. It has joined with other institutional buyers like schools and other health care facilities to develop a local network of buyers, distributors and producers.

St. Vincent’s Clay County Hospital in Middleburg, Florida and Saint Thomas West Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee have developed similar processes to buying direct from the farm.

Working together

Representatives from several hospitals at the Conference also spoke about the benefits of joining Practice Greenhealth. This operates as a kind of SBN for healthcare in the US. It promotes sustainability and provides practical tools for embedding it into their business.

Debbie says: “Environmental hazards are undermining 50 years of progress in human health. Rather than solely functioning as a space to heal the sick, with the increasing impact of climate change the healthcare sector must become anchors of resilience in our communities.”