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Organizational Change
How Healthcare Pros Can Build the Business Case for More Sustainable Hospitals

The link between a healthy environment and public health outcomes has become increasingly evident. President Obama recently used his proclamation of Public Health Week to highlight the relationship between a changing climate and public health, citing increased cases of asthma and injuries from severe weather as examples. The President called out doctors, nurses and public health officials as key drivers in accelerating this understanding and mitigating future impact.

At the same time, medical professionals are becoming more aware of the healthcare sector’s impact on the environment; in 2009, the industry was estimated to account for an estimated eight percent of the U.S.’s total carbon footprint, and hospitals generate more than 5.9 million tons of waste annually.

It’s not difficult to understand why support for sustainability would be prevalent among healthcare professionals. A recent global Harris Poll survey commissioned by Johnson & Johnson (J&J) found that more than three-quarters of healthcare professionals across six countries believe sustainability initiatives protect staff, and nearly 70 percent agreed they make business sense.

This data leads to an inevitable question: How can healthcare professionals effectively make the case for investing in sustainability within their organization?

A newly released report from J&J and the Wharton-led Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership (IGEL), Greener Hospitals: Building Consensus for Healthcare Sustainability, looks at best practices and challenges when it comes to developing and communicating the business case for sustainability investments across the healthcare industry. The report points to several ways forward:

  • Chief Sustainability Officers must be skilled in translating benefits for various audiences, especially when it comes to moving beyond initiatives with short-term ROI, to others that take longer to realize benefits. The report includes a case study from Hewlett Packard sustainability innovation technologist John Frey: “Telling an IT executive that I can help him reduce his carbon footprint is mildly to not interesting at all.” But, Frey said, if he explains instead how streamlining the project will reduce the number of devices that IT has to maintain and troubleshoot, his customer is suddenly very attentive.

  • Focus on the bottom line to build the case for sustainability. According to my colleague, Kris Soller, senior manager of business solutions at Ethicon, Inc.: “Our customers are asking us to make our products more sustainable, but they’re not necessarily willing to pay more for them…[they’re] priced more on the patient outcomes they drive than they are on their environmental characteristics.” For example, after teams implemented several identified improvements using J&J’s Earthwards® approach, Ethicon’s HARMONIC FOCUS+ surgical shears now weigh 25 percent less than the previous model, for a worldwide reduction of about six tons of red bag waste. The slimmer design, inspired by unmet customer needs, results in a more positive user experience in the operating room, while also delivering sustainability improvements.

  • Engage employees to drive sustainable investments in healthcare. Janet Howard, director of facility engagement at Practice Greenhealth, discusses how “early wins” by small groups can build toward enduring change. “You build a quiet little army,” Howard said, “and you gather your successes and you write them up and then you sit down with leadership, and together as a team in a very coordinated fashion, you demonstrate the value that’s already been realized, and you make a formal pitch for a real program.”

The healthcare industry has a great opportunity to deepen its patient impact outside of direct services, by looking at how to better manage environmental impacts. The report, Greener Hospitals: Building Consensus for Healthcare Sustainability, available here, is a great resource to help healthcare professionals make the case for investments in sustainability.