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Collaboration
Sustainability and Healthcare:
Transformational Work During a Global Pandemic

Shaw is spotlighting organizations making a positive impact through initiatives that support the wellbeing of people and the planet. Here, we discuss a new sustainability initiative led by three of the most influential organizations working to transform health care: Health Care Without Harm, Practice Greenhealth and Greenhealth Exchange.

Health Care Without Harm is a coalition that represents healthcare organizations, companies, and others that aim for healthcare to exemplify a sector's moral responsibility and mission to address its own environmental footprint; as well as become leaders in society in supporting a sustainable economy and healthy communities. Practice Greenhealth is the nation's leading membership and networking organization for organizations in the healthcare community that have made a commitment to sustainable practices. Greenhealth Exchange — a purchasing cooperative created by Practice Greenhealth, Health Care Without Harm and leading health systems committed to sustainability — makes buying products and services that are good for people, the planet and the bottom line much easier.

In a conversation with Thresa Pattee, director of sustainability at Greenhealth Exchange, we learned more about how the healthcare industry keeps focused on sustainability during a global pandemic; and about the newly launched Greenhealth Approved initiative, a collaboration between Health Care Without Harm and Practice Greenhealth.

How has the pandemic affected Health Care Without Harm’s efforts — including your initiatives and interactions with the health facilities you work with?

Thresa Pattee: During the pandemic, Health Care Without Harm has been a resource for the healthcare industry as they navigate this dynamic situation.

For example, reacting to the spread and overcrowded hospitals, some facilities or systems are starting to look and explore whether or not the addition, or re-addition, of antimicrobials in furnishing and building products is an appropriate way to move forward. In August of this year, Health Care Without Harm released a new report, Antimicrobials and COVID-19: What hospitals need to know, that built on our antimicrobials guidance originally published in 2016. The report reviewed the latest science about the virus, current safety protocols, the potential risks from using antimicrobials; and offered recommendations to our purchasers and the healthcare community.

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The latest research continued to find that the addition of antimicrobials to many products was unproven, as to whether or not it had significantly reduced infection rates. So, we've seen healthcare leaders look to us as a resource around reducing chemicals of concern and understanding the implications of decisions being made during these unprecedented times.

You’ve partnered with Practice Greenhealth on a number of initiatives. Tell us about that.

TP: Collaborating with Practice Greenhealth creates an opportunity to convene thought leaders in the health space to share their challenges and best practices as they wrestle with supply chain shortages and concerns over rising waste. We want to provide the resources to make smart purchasing decisions that really further their resilience and sustainability goals. We've begun to research key considerations in sourcing reusable products and determine how to address sustainability and avoid key chemicals of concern when looking at those products.

We’ve also partnered with Practice Greenhealth to create Greenhealth Approved — a new industry-wide criteria and label to help healthcare providers make smart purchasing decisions that advance their sustainability goals while protecting patients, visitors and staff.

Tell us more about that new program.

TP: In launching Greenhealth Approved, we focused first on the long-term work that Health Care Without Harm has done to address chemicals of concern. That allowed us to bring our work in medical products, resilient flooring and carpet under the Greenhealth Approved seal in August. We have extensive experience within furnishings and interiors and we will be introducing these categories under this seal in early 2021.

The criteria drive back to Health Care Without Harm’s resources where information on why we operationalize these specific sets of criteria into the built environment or into medical products is provided. All of the criteria that are part of Greenhealth Approved are developed with deep collaboration from the experts within our own organization, our partner organizations, and suppliers in the community — such as Shaw, who we worked with on our carpeting criteria in 2019 and resilient flooring criteria in 2018.

Suppliers and purchasers can go to greenhealthapproved.org to get answers to frequently asked questions and learn about the seal.

What are some of the most common concerns that you hear from healthcare facilities that prevent them from adopting more sustainable processes?

TP: One of the most common, and maybe foundational grounding issues, is really just making the case for sustainability initiatives.

Another concern we see that ties to the reason we brought the Greenhealth Approved seal to the market are challenges around product transparency and issues with tracking purchases to understand progress and impact within our healthcare systems and facilities. It is often difficult to understand what products either have sustainable attributes or meet specific criteria. We've seen a lot of our partner healthcare organizations develop in-house ways to delineate these products, or set up their own systems to try to understand how they can make purchases that match up with certain criteria and requirements as well as understand progress over time. Practice Greenhealth lays the foundation aimed at making the case for sustainability, aligning that case with health care’s mission, and then operationalizing changes in the healthcare setting. The seal provides one extra layer of utility helping people find products that support their initiatives.

Even with challenges, there is so much energy and movement around sustainability. Within our partnership network, we see hospitals working with each other every day to solve challenges, remove roadblocks and share best practices. We recently opened our Industry Partnership opportunity to involve businesses, other non-profits, and universities — really, anybody who shares our mission and wants to be part of this movement to improve sustainability in healthcare and to make a more livable world in the long term. We see healthcare suppliers coming together to get a shared understanding of the sustainability needs of products and how products can be improved or changed to meet environmental requirements. We've also started to see universities begin to build the connection between human and environmental health within their curriculum for their doctor and clinician students.

It’s such an exciting space to work in, because the collaboration really bolsters us. Every day, we see positive effects, as well as opportunities to educate and impact the world.

What do you see as the most pressing issue to focus on in the next few years?

TP: There are so many pressing issues, making it difficult to highlight a single challenge. But, one of the things that we talk a lot about as an organization and hear about from our healthcare partners and supplier communities is translating the lessons we’re learning from COVID-19 to improve the resilience of our healthcare systems and our communities. We expect to see crises continue to increase in the future, especially those due to climate change. Healthcare can take the lead on this and create more sustainable and resilient communities.

One example we've seen is our healthcare partners increasingly scrutinizing their supply chain, looking at production of critical supplies and how to move those back to domestic shores. They are evaluating how to help manufacturers retool to meet demands, and how to get ownership of their supply chain so they can advocate for sustainability in the products they purchase. If healthcare purchases supplies domestically, they can make sure that production practices are not further externalizing damage onto the communities they serve.

I think we're going to see continued demand for products that do not have negative health impacts, both at the point of use for the patient and within the communities they're produced in or serviced in.

One of the key underpinnings of all this is really a more widespread understanding of how low-income communities and communities of color really experience disproportionate health effects from illnesses, like COVID-19, and climate change. We need to hone in on the lessons we're learning. Trying to get uninterrupted supply chains, understanding the value of having products made within our own communities and how procurement can address some of the underlying social determinants of health through supplier diversity goals. Also, making sure they're trying to support local manufacturing and thinking about how those products are manufactured, while investing in community benefit activities to help those that have been identified as the most vulnerable from COVID-19 to live in better and healthier communities.

Our president and founder, Gary Cohen, said it best when he said: “The COVID-19 pandemic is exposing all the cracks in our safetynet system — all the economic, racial and social inequities, specifically. And we need to provide relief to those in distress in our communities.We need to provide mental and social support to vulnerable people who are already struggling to live and whose lives will be fundamentally threatened over the months to come.”

The more we can learn from these events, the more resilient our communities will be and the better prepared we're going to be to weather future crises.

This article is one in a series of articles recognizing 10 diverse organizations intently focused on products and initiatives that support the wellbeing of people and the planet, as part of Shaw’s sustain[HUMAN]ability™ recognition program. To read more about the other organizations recognized by Shaw for their efforts, visit the landing page for this blog series.

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