April 10, 2020

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First Do No Harm: Why Sustainable Healthcare Needs You

Despite laudable progress, health care sustainability efforts often aren't included in the broader sustainability conversation.


By Brenna Davis, M.S. [@brennadavis7], Director of Sustainability, Virginia Mason

With the advent of the Affordable Care Act, health care has taken the spotlight around the globe. Our industry is being driven by a mandate for high quality care at the lowest cost.

At Virginia Mason, we are well positioned to thrive in this new era, having been on a path to transform health care since 2002. For instance, we were the first health care organization in the U.S. to adapt principles of the Toyota Production System to remove waste, improve quality and safety, and lower costs.

As a recent Talkback post by Johnson & Johnson's Joe Wolk examined, hospitals are expensive to operate – and just as taxing on the environment.

In fact, hospitals represent 8 percent of the total U.S. commercial energy use, health care generates millions of tons of waste each year, and global health care supply chain expenditures are about $4.2 trillion.

Reducing Cost, Protecting the Future

Think of a hospital as a small town, except that it is bustling and using energy 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We use eight percentHealth care supply chain of total commercial energy in the U.S. to power infrastructure that is essential to providing a safe and comfortable environment for our patients.

The numbers speak for themselves and at Virginia Mason, we saw the opportunity early, deciding to focus on sustainability for three main reasons: reducing human health impacts, reducing cost and protecting the natural world for future generations.

When our team members use alternative transportation, we reduce air pollutants that affect respiratory illness. When we conserve energy, we lower the cost of quality health care. When we reduce our carbon footprint, we protect the environment for future generations.

An Expanded Emphasis

It’s no coincidence then that, as the focus on health care quality intensifies, we are also seeing an expanded emphasis on sustainability. Industry organizations like Practice Green Health and Healthier Hospitals Initiative are expanding their efforts nationally and internationally. And health care sustainability leaders are becoming more sophisticated in their efforts.

Despite all of this great work, health care sustainability efforts often haven’t been included in the broader sustainability conversation. Without this cross-pollination of sustainability ideas with other industries, health care can sometimes lack innovation.

We are lulled into complacency about the magnitude of our own impact without a pair of “outside eyes.” It is crucial Practice Greenhealththat we share information about health care sustainability efforts so that we all build an aptitude for the work. At the very least, we must all try and choose health care that provides the highest quality care at the lowest possible cost and environmental impact.

When physicians take the Hippocratic Oath, they vow to “first do no harm” to the patient. It’s heartening that the definition of “harm” is expanding to include the patient AND the planet.

Because human health and environmental health are inextricably linked and Planet health is patient health.

About the Author:

Brenna Davis is director of sustainability at Virginia Mason in Seattle, named one of the 50 greenest health systems in the U.S. in 2013. She began her sustainability career in a Northwest oil refinery in 1995. Her education in environmental science, business, and systems thinking gives her a passion for data, a focus on results, and an obsession with continuous improvement. Her work helps others connect with their innate leadership abilities so that the earth can be renewed for future generations. Follow Virginia Mason on Twitter (@VirginiaMason) and Facebook (Facebook.com/vmcares).

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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