Healthcare's sustainability push could yield billions in savings

Physician practices looking to implement or enhance "green" initiatives can reference the hospital community as a model of success. A Commonwealth Fund study published last week found that hospital sustainability efforts could save the healthcare industry up to $5.4 billion over five years and $15 billion over 10 years.

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The study, which was sponsored by the Healthier Hospitals Initiative (HHI) and Health Care Without Harm (HCWH) through grants from The Commonwealth Fund and The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, tracked nine U.S. hospitals or health systems that adopted sustainability initiatives into their waste management, energy use and operating room supply procurement practices. Each hospital realized significant savings, even those that made initial investments to adopt the sustainability program, according to the study.

"This study turns on its head the belief that introducing environmental sustainability measures increases operating costs," said Blair L. Sadler, an author of the study and a senior fellow at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, in a press release.

HHI is a national campaign that began in April 2012 to implement a new approach to improving environmental health and sustainability in the healthcare sector. Eleven of the largest U.S. health systems, comprising approximately 500 hospitals with more than $20 billion in purchasing power, worked with HCWH, the Center for Health Design and Practice Greenhealth to create HHI as a guide for hospitals to improve sustainability.

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“One of the core mandates for healthcare reform is to reduce costs and eliminate waste in the system, so we’re offering a unique way to reduce waste literally, and through that, how to save money,” said Gary Cohen, president and founder of HCWH. “And even more than that, if we’re going to address the epidemic of chronic diseases like obesity, asthma and diabetes, healthcare needs to play a role outside of the four walls of its facilities; it needs to create healthier communities and food systems so we aren’t getting our communities sick.”

Gundersen Lutheran Health System in La Crosse, Wis., was the first hospital system to sign up for all of HHI’s six challenge areas.

"This is not only good for the community, but you can really save money. Our $2 million investment saves us $1 million a year,” said Gundersen Lutheran Health System CEO Jeff Thompson. “The HHI set a high standard for us…It’s a great product to quantify best practices so people can get educated and be inspired.”

The report's authors suggest that given the return on investment, all hospitals should adopt programs, such as the ones offered by the HHI and noted that "... [I]n cases where capital investments could be financially burdensome…public funds [should] be used to provide loans or grants, particularly to safety-net hospitals.”

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