Now Reading: Little things add up to $15 billion in environmental stewardship by hospitals

As part of a preventive approach to controlling chronic disease, increasing numbers of hospitals have committed to minimizing adverse environmental impact of their operations on patients, staff, and the community, serving as role models for the health sector and society at large.

In other words, health care is learning that it can’t heal people if it is harming them at the same time. This study looks at known, implemented approaches to reducing electricity use, waste, and improved operating room equipment and calculates the savings over a 10 year period, with the figure in the title of this post.

Here are the things they looked at and calculated return on investment of:

  • energy use reduction: a range of operational changes, from more efficient operations to use of more energy-efficient equipment;
  • waste reduction: recycling, minimization of regulated medical waste through improved segrega- tion and other interventions, and reduction in total landfilled waste through a range of interventions in daily operations;
  • more efficient purchase of operating room (OR) supplies through reprocessing and reuse of single-use medical devices; and
  • more efficient purchase of OR supplies through reformulation of OR “packs.”

There are lots more things that can be done in a hospital to reduce impact on the environment, and there’s a lot more savings to be had outside of the hospital. This study just gives a hint of the potential.

The first myth that this study counteracts is that efforts to save lives outside the hospital by changing the way the hospital operates costs more money. All of the interventions are net cost-saving in dollars. Some are in cents per day or dollars per procedure. That’s where this paper also gently blows the mind, with these numbers: There are 350 million patient days per year in United States hospitals. There are 47 million surgical procedures. And this piece of data:

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 85 percent of a typical hospital’s waste is nonhazardous, yet is often mistakenly placed in “red bag” or medical waste containers.

It costs 20 times as much to process red bag waste as non-hazardous waste.

All of these interventions assume keeping the health care delivery the same. Changing the care model, through using pharmaceuticals better (responsible for 19% of CO2 emissions in health care), and reduced movement of people and supplies, brings even more health and more savings (in that order of importance).

Why wouldn’t we want to increase both, so people can achieve their life goals through optimal health?

This is where health information technology comes in (changing the model of care), and it’s why I say “Prevention is the new HIT.”

All of these interventions are happening today at Kaiser Permanente (see: Sustainable Hospitals Can Help Bend the Cost Curve – The Commonwealth Fund), AND any hospital, health system, and physician practice can do these things too, with help. Take your pick: Healthier Hospitals Initiative , My  Green Doctor . It’s all there.

Can Sustainable Hospitals Help Bend the Health Care Cost Curve

Ted Eytan, MD