A sneak peek into our 2015 Health Care Facilities Sustainable Operations Survey, which will appear in our October issue, shows that 29 percent of respondents have one or more dedicated sustainability officers in their organizations. In 2013, that number was 23 percent and just 21 percent in 2010. The jump may be slight, but it's a jump nonetheless, and one that's headed in the right direction.

We often hear health care sustainability initiatives referenced in local news "feel-good" stories and as efficient ways to save costs on energy and waste management. However, as Kathy Gerwig, environmental stewardship officer at Kaiser Permanente, talks about in her book Greening Health Care — How Hospitals Can Heal the Planet, any health system that wants to be a true environmental steward has to incorporate sustainability in its direct mission of healing patients.

"Because of our history as an organization focused on prevention, it has never been a leap for Kaiser Permanente leadership to make the connection between environmental stewardship and our mission to provide affordable high-quality health care and improve the health of the communities we serve," she said in a recent interview. "All of our sustainability work is for the purpose of eliminating environmental contributors to disease."

Kaiser's focus on disease prevention plays out specifically in its sustainable initiatives. Reducing fossil fuel use means less emissions spewing into the air, and purchasing products that use safer chemicals results in better indoor air quality.

Gundersen Health System approaches sustainability largely from the same angle. In the early 2000s, the organization began challenging itself to become more thoughtful about its sustainability efforts — asking itself what to do and why.

CEO Jeffrey Thompson, M.D., says, over the years the organization has grown into one that believes "we can take care of patients and the community while we save money with our sustainability program," and it did it by framing particular issues around public health. For instance, finding better ways to manage pharmaceutical waste is better for water streams, and reducing pollution can help in the fight against lung disease.

Designating a passionate point person who can lead the charge in sustainability is certainly a step in the right direction. But any health system that truly wants to become an environmental steward should make sustainability an integral part of its mission.  


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