3 steps to 'going green' in physician practices

Physician practices aspire to be "green" like many other businesses, but they often lack direction to put forth a coordinated effort. PhysBizTech spoke to experts who recommend three easy steps that practices can start taking today to lower their environmental impact and save money.

According to the Florida Medical Association (FMA), current “green” protocols are not easily adapted to doctor offices, and that is why it began providing the Green Doctor Office Program (GDOP) as a free service. “The goal [of GDOP] is to make offices healthier, to save money and to teach patients and their families that we can really make an improvement in community and environmental health,” said Todd L. Sack, MD, chair of the FMA’s Environment & Health Section and manager of its “green” website, www.mygreendoctor.org.

GDOP has now been in existence for two years, and is a self-administered study program that includes forming a “green team” that can lead an office in choosing from more than 120 action steps that “range from pretty simple to very complex,” said Sack.  He recommends that physicians not be part of the green team and rather that office staff take the lead on this initiative. “The concept is that once they [the office staff] start to meet regularly, they come up with more ideas – and it starts to feed on itself,” said Sack. Practices can obtain Green Doctor Office Program Recognition, which is valid for three years, and is free to FMA members and “any practice that wants to partner with us,” said Sack. For non-members the cost is $250.

“Everyone knows that embracing sustainability as a standard operating procedure is the right thing to do,” said Stan Cahill, senior director of membership at Practice Greenhealth, a four-year-old non profit membership organization located in Reston, Va., that provides environmental solutions for the healthcare sector. That said, Cahill commented, “leading with how much an organization can save,” is usually what gets the most attention.

“We don't pretend to invent sustainability in healthcare, rather we are a connecting point for people interested in environmentally friendly practices,” he said. Practice Greenhealth recently launched a new category of membership called “community health centers” that includes urgent care centers, dialysis centers, outpatient surgical, dental offices, veterinarian offices and more. Membership includes tools and assistance to help physicians collect data and set benchmarks, and provides environmentally preferable purchasing, advice and consulting/education.

This membership does not yet include being a part of Practice Greenhealths Environmental Excellence Awards; however, Cahill said that it hopes to have an awards program geared to these members by Spring 2013 when CleanMed,  the premier national environmental conference, is usually held.

John Ebers, associate director of the Facility Engagement and Energy Program at Practice Greenhealth, and Sack recommended three simple steps that practices can start implementing today:

1. Recycling –  One of the first action steps of the GDOP, this step includes purchasing recycling bins, buying recycled paper, recycling printer ink cartridges and agreeing not to use styrofoam in the office.

2. Conserving energy – “Phantom energy draw by devices can be significant over time and impacts the environment invisibly. The key here is to have someone 'responsible' for this – not necessarily the person who turns out every switch, rather someone who trains others to comply with this policy,” said Ebers. He noted that “optimizing energy efficiencies with all computers is a task for the IT person.” Sack recommended looking at the practice's utility bill and making changes including switching all light bulbs to Compact Fluorescent Bulbs (CFBs) and putting the office thermostat at 74 degrees F (23 C) in the summer and 68 F (20 C) in the winter.

3. Conserving water – Action steps of the GDOP include conducting a water audit to see how much water the practice is using. This includes checking for leaky faucets, installing low-flow faucets and checking to see how much water each toilet uses per flush.  A practice can even turn off its hot water. Most doctor offices can safely turn off their hot water heaters, with no adverse health consequences, said Sack.  Offices should also consider eliminating their water cooler or bottled water and using tap water and a faucet or pitcher filter.  A practice should also check its outdoor water use to see where they can conserve water.

Practices interested in joining GDOP can click here to register and pick their first action steps.

Click here for more information on becoming a community health centers member under Practice Greenhealth.