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How Health Care Is Pushing Sustainability Ahead of Consumer Demand

Image Credit: Health Care Without Harm

Over the last few years, we’ve seen consumer demand accelerate the push for corporate responsibility in business. Consumers today aren’t just paying lip service to good causes; more are choosing to ‘vote with their dollars,’ seeking out and purchasing products from companies that align with their values.

In today’s highly charged and politicized business environment, companies seen as lacking in social responsibility can sometimes suffer, leading to a loss in sales. A good example can be seen in the experience of Uber, whose CEO has been under fire for several instances of perceived corporate irresponsibility. Consumers are using the power of their purchases — and their opinions — to hold companies accountable and ultimately influence which businesses succeed and those who don’t. From a business perspective, the pressure is on.

Companies from all sectors have responded by showing that their work can help people, profit and planet all thrive together. For example, tech companies such as Intel have significantly reduced energy consumption while increasing the use of clean energy (Intel is the largest purchase of green power in the U.S.). Companies are also transforming their own products to be more sustainable every year while also pushing suppliers to meet sustainability goals. These strategies build on commitments to social and environmental responsibility while signaling a strong case to customers to support them. And these efforts are paying off. 

So, what if leaders in the health care industry also operated its facilities and managed care with sustainability in mind?

Well, it already does. Health care has been working behind the scenes to create sustainable, responsible facilities that provide better care that is supportive of local communities and more mission-aligned than ever before. The industry is well-positioned to meet growing patient and staff demand for sustainable hospitals.

Every year, Practice Greenhealth surveys leading hospitals and health systems to determine where the industry is going in terms of sustainability. Our Sustainability Benchmark Report details our findings, and this year, highlights the key areas where our nation’s hospitals have made conscious decisions to deliver health care that’s better for patients, local communities and the planet. Because of our years of tracking the environmental progress of leading hospitals, we’ve been able to evaluate the strategies implemented and benefits delivered from embedding sustainability into the health care business model. Below are a key highlights from our report that show where health care is headed.

Climate action

Decades of research show fossil fuels kill more people every year than wars, murders and traffic accidents combined, making climate a key instigator in much of the disease that health care treats every year. For hospitals, which house the first responders in any natural disaster, the impacts of climate change in the U.S. have become increasingly difficult to ignore: more heat waves, more intense and erratic rainfall, and rising seas and storm surges along our coasts. The pressure to address the nexus of climate and health is mounting, and health care has risen to the occasion.

Our report shows that over the last three years, the percentage of hospitals that have a written plan to address climate change mitigation has nearly doubled. Also, more hospitals are relying on renewable energy: The percentage of facilities that generate or purchase renewable energy has increased by 81 percent. We’ve seen lots of progress over the years and more is on the horizon as leading hospitals turn their attention to emerging practices such as reducing waste anesthetic gases that escape during surgery, adopting electric vehicles for fleet transportation, and minimizing food waste.

Phasing out toxic chemicals

In recent years, we’ve learned that certain products we use in health care — including furniture, fabrics, and building materials — contain toxic chemicals that can leach and have adverse effects on human health and the environment. Forward-thinking health care facilities are zeroing in on safer products as another important step towards creating healthier healing environments. After all, health care’s very business model is designed to make people feel better, and places of healing should ensure that the products patients come into contact with actually optimize healing. This imperative is now driving large-scale purchases by hospitals and health systems in leading health care facilities across the U.S. 

The demand for furniture free from toxic flame-retardants is a powerful example. In recent years, several major health systems have pushed suppliers to provide furniture without this harmful chemical, which is linked to reproductive problems, cancer and developmental delays. In 2016, the percentage of hospitals prioritizing furniture and medical furnishings free of halogenated flame retardants, formaldehyde, perfluorinated compounds and PVC more than doubled from the previous year.

Promoting healthier, more sustainable food

Hippocrates said: “Let food be your medicine,” and health care is increasingly recognizing that healthier food is a key ingredient in individual and community wellness. As more consumers clamor to understand where their food comes from and how it’s produced, we are seeing increased understanding in health care that the kind of food we serve matters — to our health, our environment and our communities.

Because millions of people are fed every day in our hospitals and health care facilities, health care demand can be a powerful lever for change, supporting local farms and producers and increasing the consumption of fresh, healthy food.

The majority of facilities we surveyed see sustainable food as an important area of their focus. In fact, 62 percent have a policy in place to address the issue while more than 70 percent of hospitals reported purchasing foods that have been locally and/or sustainably grown. Hospitals are also making strong progress decreasing meat consumption and prioritizing antibiotic-free meat. Half of participating facilities reduced their meat purchases while 54 percent purchased some portion of their meat/poultry raised without the routine use of antibiotics.

Consumer demand for sustainable care will only increase

More hospitals and health systems today are expanding their healing mission beyond their walls to the communities they serve and the environment. They are connecting a healthy environment to patient experience and showing how their facilities optimize healing: from a human health, community and environmental perspective.

Studies show that 90 percent of Americans are more likely to trust and stay loyal to companies that actively work to make a difference in the world. And 88 percent of consumers would buy a product with a social or environmental benefit.

The hospital of the future is going to be just like Intel, where its socially conscious business model is recognized on a wider scale. Hospitals today may not think that health care consumers are thinking about care from a corporate responsibility lens. But it’s only a matter of time until they wake up and ask their health care providers where they stand on key values and the causes they believe in.


Gary Cohen is Co-Founder and President of Health Care Without Harm and Practice Greenhealth. Cohen was named one of the 2015 fellows of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. 

[Read more about Gary Cohen]


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