How can hospitals become more sustainable?

Jenna Phillips

By Jenna Phillips


Global awareness of climate change, the Circular Economy and environmentally sustainable business practices is transforming industries. But healthcare delivery hasn’t seen the same move.

In 2019, researchers at Northeastern University and Yale University found that hospitals are the second-most energy intensive commercial buildings in the United States. They contribute 10 per cent of the nation’s carbon emissions, and increased their carbon footprint by 30 per cent between 2006 and 2016.

The good news is, there’s plenty of incentive to embrace sustainability. According to a study in 2019, 94 per cent of patients consider a hospital’s environmental sustainability program to be important. It also found that 86 per cent are more likely to return to a hospital for their future healthcare needs if it had a strong sustainability program. Meanwhile, the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania showed that commitment to corporate responsibility and environmental initiatives can lead to a 20 per cent revenue increase.

So, how can hospitals embrace more environmentally sustainable business practices and reap the benefits that come with their commitment?

Based on our deep expertise in the healthcare sector and extensive experience of helping organisations become more sustainable, we’ve identified four innovative practices that organisations can adopt. 

1. Update your procurement and waste management processes

One of the most straightforward opportunities to go green is to improve waste management. Reviewing your waste management process will ensure recyclable materials are recycled.

If your hospital is yet to establish sustainability criteria in waste management or procurement, this is the perfect opportunity to do so, especially if you follow up any assessment with new or reinforced sustainability practices and commitments.

Hospitals that partner with medical device companies can also reprocess some of the single-use medical devices they typically discard. Cardinal Health, for example, developed a zero-waste operation in partnership with healthcare organisations to reprocess or recycle single-use devices. In 2017, they diverted more than 740 tons of used medical devices from landfills through these partnerships. Kaiser Permanente reportedly saves around $11 million per year by reprocessing certain single-use devices.

One of the top concerns related to waste management and procurement among healthcare providers is infection control and ensuring that surfaces are appropriately disinfected. And while the World Health Organization indicates that appropriate hand hygiene is the most important way to stop the spread of infection in hospitals – a goal which can be accomplished without use of harsh, synthetic chemicals – hospitals still need to procure appropriate disinfectants. In fact, we expect cleaning processes will become even more regimented as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Implementing reuse and recycling schemes in non-clinical areas, such as food and dining services, will help tackle the single-use plastic issue. And opting to purchase more locally grown food will help reduce food waste and your carbon footprint. You could even collaborate with local organisations to make compost from your food waste, fuelling hospital gardens or other food producers in your local area.

2. Change how you use durable goods

Sharing durable assets, such as transportation fleets, buildings, medical equipment and other under-utilised assets will make your operations more environmentally sustainable. For example, a company called Floow2 has developed a sharing marketplace that allows healthcare organisations to share their equipment among hospitals in their network. This reduces expenditure on expensive equipment like imaging machines, as well as the amount of time that expensive equipment sits unused. Not only does asset sharing have potential cost savings for all organisations in the network, it also reduces overall energy expenditure on manufacturing and servicing the products.

The coronavirus pandemic is already shifting how some organisations use their durable goods, including the space in their buildings. For non-urgent care, many providers have adopted telehealth and remote care offerings, reducing their energy use and physical footprint, as well as the emissions generated by patients and staff traveling to the facility.

3. Switch to clean energy

Instead of relying on fossil fuel energy sources, hospitals can convert to more efficient and environmentally friendly energy sources that also reduce costs. Hospitals should consider installing smart lighting systems, invest in green energy, solar panels and other clean energy generators. Some health systems even generate energy from the onsite incinerators they use to dispose of waste.

Kaiser Permanente made one of the largest commitments to green energy among healthcare organisations in the United States, pledging to become net carbon negative by buying enough clean energy and carbon offsets to remove more greenhouse gases from the atmosphere than it emits.

4. Anticipate new regulatory requirements

While consumers, patients and other stakeholders are encouraging healthcare organisations to adopt sustainability practices, governments are also pushing through environmental regulations that will impact healthcare. Some healthcare stakeholders have called for international standards and metrics to measure the energy and materials used by healthcare organisations, as well as their environmental impact.

Especially in the US, which is in an election year, the potential for policy change is high, so organisations that prepare and begin to implement changes sooner are likelier to avoid costly consequences in the future.

Hospitals can adopt environmentally friendly policies

As many healthcare organisations have a mission to support public health as well as to provide excellent clinical care, it’s essential they work to avoid the environmental degradation that will impact people’s health and wellbeing. And as environmental awareness spreads even further, consumers and industry stakeholders will increasingly demand organisations demonstrate their commitment to sustainability.

To stay ahead of the curve and be the first to benefit from the sustainability opportunity, healthcare organisations need to be more innovative. By changing waste practices, sharing equipment, investing in green energy and planning for regulatory changes, they’ll meet stakeholder demand, realise financial savings and support public health.

About the authors

Jenna Phillips
Jenna Phillips PA healthcare expert Jenna collaborates with stakeholders throughout the healthcare system to design and implement complex strategy initiatives

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