Sustainability strives for attention, priority in pandemic-stricken world

Oct. 27, 2020
But some link sustainability to resilience

Historically, it should be no secret that sustainability as an aim, issue and management priority has struggled to gain a solid foothold among the key tentpoles of business operations.

This year, against the backdrop of a global pandemic that has shaken the very foundation of supply chain performance, is no exception even as the clinical, financial, operational, administrative and supply chain responses to COVID-19 shuffles sustainability lower down the priority list.

Sustainability supporters and promoters, however, remain dedicated, devoted, passionate, resilient, resolute and undaunted.

Sustainability matters

Zoë Beck, Manager, Sustainability, HealthTrust, acknowledges the challenges the pandemic has wrought but assures that the commitment to sustainability remains steadfast.

“Realistically, most hospitals have not been able to focus on sustainability due to pressing issues to keep hospitals open, functioning and safe for patients and staff,” Beck told Healthcare Purchasing News. “However, what hospitals have been doing as a result of the pandemic can be lessons moving forward for what is important for future resiliency. Sustainability plays a huge role in this.

Beck points to value lessons learned.

“While the healthcare industry has dealt with huge issues in terms of supply availability, facilities have been able to be innovative in the ways they conserve, obtain and stock supplies,” she said. “These lessons can be useful for the future as hospitals look at ways to ensure they have a robust supply chain. They have learned ways in which they can use fewer products, reprocess products that have not traditionally been reprocessed, monitor use of products and possibly move purchasing to more local manufacturers.

“While sustainability has most definitely not been the focus, the lessons learned from COVID can help health systems to be more sustainable and resilient in the future,” she concluded.

The pandemic offers up a wealth of teachable moments for everyone, according to Rob Chase, Founder and President, NewGen Surgical.

“The pandemic has caused everyone, in healthcare and in society, to change what they are doing and to adjust priorities,” Chase noted. “However, the pandemic has also ignited a renewed focus on how healthcare can recover as more resilient and sustainable. You saw not only the real challenges to a supply chain that was not ready, but the actual plastic pollution of the PPE in front of us on the streets and in the water. The pandemic has forced us all to reflect on the interconnectedness of humans, the environment and our health. There is an increased awareness of the need to take action in support of sustainable initiatives to protect the foundation of all health – a healthy environment.” 

Although the pandemic has disrupted many facets of life, according to Cristina Indiveri, Senior Director, Strategic Programs, Vizient, healthcare organizations are seeking environmentally preferred purchasing strategies based on consumption behaviors and patterns.

“Prior to the pandemic, it was routine for healthcare organizations to utilize disposable products, especially PPE,” she observed. “Now, healthcare organizations have found ways to safely reuse what would normally be considered single-use items like N95 respirators. In addition, hospitals are also integrating other reusable items such as gowns, bouffant caps, skull caps, fabric masks and shoe covers. Utilizing reusable products also reduces their environmental footprint by minimizing waste.”

By “going green,” Indiveri added, health­care organizations are finding that using reusable items can lower costs in the long term “by factoring in the return on investment instead of upfront costs.”

Andrew Knox, Manager, Environmentally Preferred Products, Premier, understands the dilemmas that clinicians, administrators and supply chain professionals have been facing for the last nine months at least, particularly as COVID-19 challenged sustainability efforts.

“It has been all hands on deck for healthcare providers as they work tirelessly to care for patients and ensure they have the critical products and supplies they need to do so,” Knox noted. “In this environment, anything that is not an immediate priority has had to wait its turn.”

But the pandemic should serve as an impetus to act and not an excuse to postpone and wait.

“Sustainability is central to the mission of the healthcare industry,” Knox insisted, “and the pandemic only reinforces its importance. For example, several recent studies have suggested a link between the severity of COVID-19 infections and local levels of air pollution, and the stress on supply chains for disposable materials has certainly highlighted the dangers of relying too heavily on single-use items.”

The pandemic reinforces heightened awareness, Knox emphasizes.

“Healthcare is beginning to truly understand its environmental footprint – and with an increasing awareness of the need to set aside competitive boundaries and work together to promote and encourage participation in green initiatives,” he said. “Practice Greenhealth, a non-profit that helps embed sustainability into healthcare operations, and the Healthcare Anchor Network (HAN), which focuses on local impacts of large healthcare institutions, have been essential in fostering meaningful collaboration.”

Seeing green

Executives at Greenhealth Exchange have witnessed the butterfly effect the pandemic has wrought on healthcare facilities and on sustainability projects, in particular.

Lingering supply chain challenges remain evident, according to Rachel Franklin, Senior Director, Contracting & Supplier Relations, Greenhealth Exchange.

“The decrease in elective procedures, and subsequently revenue, has put increased pressure on Supply Chain to take cost out of the system,” Franklin noted. “As a result, Supply Chain staff [are] focused on the lowest invoice price and not necessarily with other attributes, such as those aligned to sustainability.”

Further, “Supply Chain staff are overwhelmed just trying to manage day-to-day product shortages and patient volume spikes, which cuts into the time needed for sustainability-related improvements,” she acknowledged.

Yet among those challenges, opportunities abound, according to Thresa Pattee, Director of Sustainability, Greenhealth Exchange.

“One specific example is the dependence and high-volume use of disposable products,” Pattee indicated. “Soaring prices, extreme stocking challenges and dramatic increases in waste have opened the door to consider reusable products and sourcing of domestic products and services where they would never have been evaluated previously.”

The pandemic also provides the industry and the world with a panoramic view of a potential future that can be fixed – even down to the local level, Gary Cohen, President and Founder, Health Care Without Harm, states.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is exposing all the cracks in our safety net system – all the economic, racial and social inequities,” he said. “We need to build more localized systems that don’t depend entirely on global supply chains. Healthcare needs to partner with other actors – like regional food systems, distributed energy systems and local social services – to build more resilient communities.

“More broadly, COVID-19 gives us a glimpse into a future where society is fundamentally threatened by ecological forces that know no borders and impact everyone in the world,” Cohen continued. “We have arrived at this future sooner than we thought. Our presence and our responses to this pandemic will provide us with crucial lessons for how we can address the broader climate crisis that is also fast approaching.”

Supply Chain probably should consider focusing on a back-to-basics approach, urges Stacey Winston, Vice President, Program Management, Intalere.

“With the pandemic, much of the focus has shifted to the fundamental aspect of supply chain – assurance of supply,” Winston said. “With this, many organizations have in some cases reduced or eliminated sustainability goals in their evaluation of potential suppliers. Over the long term, however, it will be important to reinforce these standards. A sustainable supply chain is a resilient supply chain and having a dialogue with suppliers about their initiatives on sustainability indicates that the relationship has moved well beyond traditional, transactional relationships.”

Medline Industries, meanwhile, sees the pandemic less as a roadblock to progress and more as a springboard to innovation in terms of dedication to sustainability and service to customers.

“Our responsibility as a healthcare company will always be ensuring the health and safety of those that we serve,” said Hannah Anderson, Sustainability Specialist, Medline Industries. “Part of ensuring health and safety is continually addressing climate change-related issues in all that we do. Throughout the pandemic, the general atmospheric sense of urgency extends to our sustainability work. We’ve been doubling down on our commitments to combat climate change and zeroing in on programs and initiatives that have the largest positive effect on our planet for the greatest number of individuals. For many of us in the healthcare space, the pandemic has brought home the importance of climate change action.”

So Medline executives and professionals have doubled down on a new initiative.

“With packaging waste and plastic use top of mind for many of our customers and across the industry, we set out to create a program to pave the way for large-scale change,” Anderson continued. “This September, we launched our Sustainable Packaging Lab – a cross-functional team of Medline R&D, Operations, Engineers and Sustainability team members providing solutions to packaging challenges. The lab will address issues core to climate change and global warming; cutting down on use of fossil fuels, virgin material use and scaling up sustainable material substitutions for plastic and cardboard packaging.” 

About the Author

Rick Dana Barlow | Senior Editor

Rick Dana Barlow is Senior Editor for Healthcare Purchasing News, an Endeavor Business Media publication. He can be reached at [email protected].