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Head and Heart: A Data Prescription for Healthcare Sustainability Leadership

Submitted by: Andrea Learned

Posted: Jan 09, 2015 – 10:00 AM EST

Tags: sustainability, leadership, healthcare, virginia mason, data management


“Our job is to “first do no harm,’ so addressing climate change as part of keeping people healthy and safe could be interpreted as being in the Hippocratic Oath” That was one of the first points Brenna Davis, Virginia Mason Health System’s Director of Sustainability made clear when we spoke recently. So, it should be no surprise that her rigorous, data driven approach is leading an empathy-focused business, if not the entire healthcare industry, to major change.

War on Waste

This focus on sustainability actually got a head start over a decade ago when they incorporated the Toyota Production Methods in their own organizational “War on Waste.” Studying nursing procedures or waiting room waits or…you name it, brought the attention of Virginia Mason’s leadership back then to the combined business and patient case for rooting out the most efficient ways of keeping people healthy. So, when Davis, an environmental scientist by education, joined the organization in 2012, the foundation and support for her evidence-based approach to making sustainability decisions was solid.

And, by switching the medical center from spreadsheet tracking to the customizable Scope 5 data management tool for analysis and monitoring, Davis soon realized the power of that approach. Among other “wastes” that emerged after Virginia Mason started monitoring, the data showed that steam – yes, steam – was the most expensive utility for typical adjusted patient day (a typical hospital performance measure here). Along similar lines, her deeper attention to medical center’s food purchases has also uncovered waste worth battling.

With even more complex data and decisions to make than your average business, healthcare organizations have layers upon layers of information they “could” monitor and analyze. But having the right leader of that charge will mean starting with the best questions, designing the most productive parameters, finding the right tools and digging in most effectively. Virginia Mason has Davis to thank for understanding which data points are worth measuring and how to best go about making decisions from there. Virginia Mason’s already embedded war on waste has been a powerful framing metaphor for the task.

Adding Value by Removing

Some may assume that considering sustainability in business could only add internal hoops and processes, though Davis has found incredible value by leveraging data to discover what might be removed to bring more value to human life and improve the business of VMCC. In the big picture, this means striving to take away the toxins or waste that harm the environment, all to improve health of humans on earth. At the level of running a facility, this might be as obvious as sorting through operating room waste to recycle as much as possible and lower landfill costs, or as seemingly obscure as thinking about whether it makes sense to decrease use of meat in hospital meals as a way to both improve patient health and lessen carbon emissions of food supply chain.

Discovering where the value lies in developing business sustainability starts with measuring what matters. Since medical centers are such a unique environment, Davis decided that the best way for VMMC to develop their metrics would be to carefully select elements from the GRI, SASB and Practice GreenHealth standards. As Davis put it, “Our data management tool allowed us to customize, and combine those standards into something that made sense and met the majority of the materiality essential to our business. This was new wisdom for us. There really had not been a lot out there in terms of what is material to healthcare specifically.”  Accounting for the use of reprocessed single use medical devices is just one industry example of something GRI and SASB were not including. Yet, Virginia Mason works with a vendor that reprocesses them to such a high quality that their re-use saves them up to a million dollars every year. That is certainly worth measuring.

Head Supports Heart

The concept of battling waste also reflects the “head” (aka business case) that tends to guide the sustainability decisions of most organizations. But, as Davis emphasized in our conversation, the business case that continues to be built through use of Virginia Mason’s data really supports and enhances the “heart” of the business, or empathy for human health and wellbeing, which is core to the medical center’s purpose and the Hippocratic Oath.

As a scientist with long established focus on analytic rigor, Davis sees all sorts of data to support the smart decisions and possible changes her organization is exploring. Her own personal passion for the cause has also been part of the reason her scientific approach has been so successful. In fact, her position as Virginia Mason’s Sustainability Director has helped increase the profile of the Seattle-based health system in national healthcare industry and policy circles. 

Among the ways she is expanding the reach of Virginia Mason’s learnings, Davis, who lauds and contributes to the work of industry groups like Practice GreenHealth, is currently heading up the Washington Business for Climate Declaration group of over 100 businesses (including Microsoft and REI) and is moderating a panel, which includes Ross McFarlane of Climate Solutions and Derek Eisel of Scope 5, for the 2015 CLEANMED conference on “How Smaller Health Care Organizations Can Have a Big Impact on Climate Change

The Data Prescription

Without being able to measure data the way they can now, Virginia Mason would not have switched out showerheads in their two campus hotels, which resulted in saving 45% of the water used. The combined impact of heart-driven, but mind and data measurement-based decisions like that, and the others already mentioned and unmentioned here, has been incredible for Virginia Mason as a business and human care giver. The benefits of having access to meaningful data has created new opportunities in every department, from building and facilities to employee engagement, patient service, and beyond. Davis is sharing those stories with industry folk who visit her organization to learn, as well as with the Seattle community of businesses, the national healthcare industry and policy makers in Washington, DC. 

With Davis’ guiding focus on data, Virginia Mason is leading the way in sustainable healthcare, and elevating best practices that decision-makers from all walks of business and institutional management are already learning from. What drives her rigorous, scientific approach to the work, however, starts deep in her heart: a desire to contribute to local and global human health and wellbeing.

In both the individual and the medical institution, that unusual combination of evidence and empathy is an excellent prescription for healthcare sustainability leadership.

Brenna Davis is @brennadavis7 on Twitter, and here on LinkedIn.


Disclosure: Both Scope 5 and Virginia Mason have been clients of Andrea's

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

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