The Way Forward for Sustainability in Healthcare

April 23, 2024

Healthcare Purchasing News was able to speak with Amy Piser, lead clinical educator at Daniels Health, in order to gain some insight into how to best implement sustainability measures in hospitals to maximize success and efficiency.

What are the biggest challenges hospitals tend to face in adopting sustainability measures?

In my experience, the biggest challenge that hospitals face in adopting sustainability measures is a lack of data to back and confirm their efforts. It’s one thing to make pledges or commitments around sustainability, but tracking and reporting on specific Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) such as waste per adjusted patient days is significantly more difficult. I always tell people “what you can measure, you can manage,” and the number one question we’ve been getting recently is around how we can track initiatives around waste reduction, CO2 offsets, and other measurable outcomes, which is a great first step.

Although organizations like Practice Greenhealth exist to provide reporting tools and best practices, the hospitals themselves still have to build and report on their own sustainability data in partnership with their vendors. This lack of data visibility from vendors and partners is still a significant challenge for many hospitals. 

What are some measures hospitals have taken that have been particularly successful?

More than anything, hospitals that take a proactive approach to supply chain management tend to have the most success driving sustainable outcomes. Likeminded vendors are typically more than happy to partner on sustainability initiatives, but it’s critical for hospitals to start with building achievable and repeatable KPIs into the brief. From there, vendors can ensure they are tracking the appropriate data points, supporting with business reviews on a regular basis to track outcomes.

There are many other successful strategies we often see specifically within the hospital waste management space. For example, optimizing waste streams typically leads to a reduction in excess regulated medical waste, which is more energy intensive to dispose of. Similarly, developing a stringent pharmaceutical waste program keeps medications out of wastewater and trash.

Additionally, adopting reusable products where possible, such as waste containers, is increasingly successful for many hospitals. While this is sometimes a point of conflict with infection prevention and risk, there is rarely any infection risk associated with certain reusables. Hospitals are increasingly focusing on identifying those products that have a more sustainable lifecycle without threatening patient or staff safety.

How can hospitals educate their workers on acting and working more sustainably?

A successful educational program starts with a strong work plan backed by specific goals and vision. This sets clear top-down expectations and enables key stakeholders to regularly engage clinical and educational teams with consistent learning messages. Consistent and continual education is increasingly important, especially as many hospitals see a rise in employee turnover, traveling support, and contractor support. Focusing on sustainability in the onboarding process is also critical.

Lastly, auditing current programs and metrics to determine success, and then adapting education based on findings, ensures that efforts are continuously focused on driving results and updated to meet the needs of the sustainability program.   

What do you anticipate for the future in this space?

Whether through voluntary commitments like the Department of Health and Human Services Healthcare Resilience Pledge (to which Daniels Health is a signatory) or regulatory requirements like the new Securities and Exchange Commission ruling for public companies to disclose climate-related information, there is a growing trend toward data-based carbon emissions reporting. 

While this hasn’t happened yet, it is not hard to imagine a world where Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements are impacted by sustainability measurements, similar to HAI [healthcare-associated infections] reporting. Additionally, many accreditation organizations like the Joint Commission are adding focus to sustainable outcomes.

The bottom line is that this trend is not going anywhere, and with public perception at an all-time high, hospitals have nothing to lose by starting to plan now.

Are there any developments you're tracking that seem particularly promising?

I am very excited by technology advances allowing us to develop better solutions for sustainable waste management. Hazardous and regulated medical waste require intensive disposal treatments that are not necessarily environmentally friendly, so developments in alternative treatment options like hydrogen destruction and waste to energy are very promising. While the technology is not yet universal, it is promising to see a roadmap for a world where medical waste management has a more positive impact on the environment.

Additionally, within the space of waste management, we are seeing an ongoing shift away from paper to digital when it comes to manifesting, which is another step in the right direction. Combined with the adoption of optimization software, this digital first approach not only reduces paper waste, but enables tracking and reporting capabilities that support a deeper environmental impact.

About the Author

Matt MacKenzie | Associate Editor

Matt is Associate Editor for Healthcare Purchasing News.