Why not simply do nothing about sustainability in healthcare?

Oct. 26, 2022

The United States of America may have sustained the existence of the “Know-Nothing Party” in the mid-1850s, but here in the early 21st century apprehension, cynicism, indifference, procrastination and skepticism are among the culprits of a “Do-Nothing Party” when it comes to implementing sustainability projects and programs within healthcare organizations.

While plenty of hospitals and nonacute care facilities have implemented sustainability efforts through the years, plenty more have yet to do it with the naysayers typically using budgets, economics and priorities as motivation for their eco-friendly malaise.

Still, by and large, the healthcare industry seems to lumber along at a glacial, if not snail’s, pace and remains in operation for millions upon millions of patients. So what if much of the industry did nothing about the environment and just maintained the status quo on sustainability?

After posing that question you’d think you lit the fuse of a powder keg, albeit a fuse made from sustainable organic hemp, of course.

Small part of bigger picture

“This work is part of an organization’s continuous improvement efforts,” said Mary Starr, Chief Operating Officer, Greenhealth Exchange. “Maintaining the status quo would be like saying the clinical products we use are adequate so there is no need to look at any new technology. Healthcare organizations’ missions typically focus on health, and sustainability plays a significant role in the health of patients, employees and the community, so it must be constantly evaluated for improvements.”

Maybe it’s even larger

“The link between human health and planetary health is clear. Health systems exist to keep people healthy; healthy people are harder to come by in an increasingly unhealthy world,” observed Evelyn Miller, Senior Manager, Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG), Medline Industries. “Just like many health systems are stepping up to address social determinants of health in their community to advance health equity, they must also consider their own impact as it relates to climate change. If you’re not working to address climate change, are you really working toward greater health and well-being?”

Cause, effect tops symptoms

“In the healthcare industry, organizations have already mastered the ability to manage symptoms for the illnesses their patients present,” indicated Mikhail Davis, Director of Technical Sustainability, Interface. “But if we want to improve the overall health of our communities, we must look at underlying causes. With climate change as the No. 1 public health concern for our society and purchasing being the No. 1 impact of businesses on climate change, if your organization does not have a plan to confront climate change through prioritizing low carbon purchasing, you are not doing everything that you can to promote public health.” 

What a dangerous idea

“Doing nothing is just not an option, and hospitals who ignore the call to make the environment a supply chain issue will do so at their peril,” noted Lars Thording, Vice President, Marketing & Public Affairs, Innovative Health. “Consumers have made purchasing choices based on the environment for decades, and this is coming to healthcare rapidly today. In addition, political pressure to adopt environmentally friendly policies mandatory are likely to arrive at the hospital doorstep soon.”

You’re kidding, right?

“This is not an option,” detonated Paul Murphy, Vice President, Major Accounts & Vertical Markets, Canon Solutions America Inc.

Simply a poor decision

“It would be the advice of the Mattress Recycling Council that to do nothing but to continue to trash your old mattresses is a poor decision,” noted Joy Broussard, California Program and Logistics Coordinator, Mattress Recycling Council. “It is a poor decision financially because your institution will pay ever growing disposal fees and transportation costs. If a mattress is not recycled, then it is landfilled. Many states or communities are banning mattresses from landfills because a mattress takes up too much space. Your trash disposal firm will need to drive further and further to find somewhere to bury your old mattresses and at ever increasing tip fees. Those costs are always passed directly onto you.

“As an institution trying to improve its environmental reputation, doing nothing is a poor environmental decision. The longer travel distances to ship your old mattresses add to greenhouse gas emissions. The valuable materials within the mattresses that are buried are lost forever. Just imagine, for example, how many times those steel springs that you buried with that old mattress could continue to be re-shaped into future steel products time and time again.”

‘Code Red’ moral responsibility

“We must change course, move the healthcare industry and supply chain onto a more sustainable path,” said Rob Chase, Founder & CEO, NewGen Surgical Inc. “As the United Nations said recently about climate change, ‘It’s Code Red for humanity.’ Doing nothing is not an option! We have a moral responsibility to our families and to future generations that we must do better and take action against the threat posed by climate change. As a country we have a goal to reduce carbon emissions by 50% by 2030. Just because healthcare supplies life-saving medicines and surgical care does not mean we get a hall pass to do nothing. There are many areas where we as an industry can make a meaningful difference and the companies that manufacture and supply products and services need to step up and lean into these challenges that we all face. Those in supply chain can help ease this needed transition to low carbon patient care by seeking out and purchasing environmentally preferrable products. Production follows consumption, so making even small changes in what you purchase can have a meaningful and lasting impact.”

Healthcare must lead

“I don’t believe doing nothing is an option, and even the status quo is unlikely to be good enough,” said Andrew Knox, Manager, Environmentally Preferred Products, Premier. We are increasingly witnessing the effects of climate change and pollution on the people we as healthcare professionals serve, as well as on the environment. Pressure for change is only going to increase, whether from patients, stakeholders, or regulators. Healthcare cannot stand by and leave it to other industries to limit environmental impacts. We must show leadership.”

Amounts to a critical duty

“Although healthcare industries continue to operate and even grow, we cannot maintain the status quo because without drastic change, there will be an irreversible negative impact on the environment,” warned Andy Marshall, CEO, Sterilis Solutions. “Since the 2016 Paris Agreement to limit global warming, businesses have been putting plans in place to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Despite these advances, progress on climate action has been limited. This lack of progress is partly attributed to supply chains since the bulk of carbon dioxide emissions happen here. A company’s sustainability efforts reside mainly in the supply chain, giving light to the fact that a company is no more sustainable than its supply chain.

“Health operations are fundamental to maintaining the health and welfare of our society, as well as individual health, and have lasting impacts on the development and economic growth of the world. By developing and implementing environmentally conscious, forward-thinking solutions within our supply chains, we can further progress the health and general well-being of current and future generations.

“Implementing sustainability solutions now is critical to mitigating future consequences for generations to come. Sustainability should be at the forefront of most, if not all, healthcare organizations’ priorities. By seeking out products, organizations and solutions that position environmentally friendly initiatives at the helm, we greatly strengthen our health systems and the health of the environment.”

Too much is at stake

“The healthcare industry needs to do its part for people and the planet, which are inextricably linked. The health of the planet affects human health, and with 5% of the global carbon emissions and 14,000 tons of waste per day from U.S. healthcare facilities, we have a responsibility to act,” argued Eileen Buckley, Vice President, Corporate Responsibility, Stryker. “We see incorporating responsible, sustainable practices across Stryker as a way to support our customers, help protect the planet, drive business value and growth and attract and retain talent. We take a business-minded approach to our corporate responsibility and sustainability investments, which also yield a positive social and environmental impact. The average time to payback on our energy investments is about 4.5 years. The risks of inaction could be far greater, including loss of market share, being in violation of country laws and regulations, missing opportunities on operational efficiencies and cost savings, including across our value chain, business interruption due to climate risks, losing out on top talent and more.”  

Doing nothing is … unhealthy

“When it comes to sustainability, the healthcare industry is not fine, and it hasn’t been,” observed Cristina Indiveri, Associate Vice President, Strategic Programs and Contract Services, Vizient. “It is contributing to a significant amount of carbon emissions, creating waste and exposing patients to potentially dangerous chemicals. COVID, which highlighted multiple weaknesses in healthcare, is the perfect example of why we must act now to course correct. Instead of letting lack of sustainability continue to balloon, impacting human and environmental health, shouldn’t we collaborate to deflate the crisis that it will surely bring if nothing is done?

“Doing nothing is not an option. My children’s lives and the lives of countless other individuals are at stake. Extreme heat, severe weather, air pollution and other symptoms of climate change are significantly increasing heat-related deaths, injuries and diseases across the globe. Harmful chemicals, once introduced into the supply chain, are not easily, if at all, extracted, except through attrition. [See https://newsroom.vizientinc.com/improving-human-and-environmental-health-call-for-environmentally-preferred-health-care-sourcing.htm?blog/supplychain.]

“Simply put, healthy people cannot exist on a sick planet. I refuse to be a bystander while the ‘greatest global threat to public health’ negatively impacts the health and wellbeing of our current generation and the generations to come.”