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Examining the “cause of the cause” for sustainable hospitals

By Janet Brown Director of Facility Engagement and Director Of Content And Outreach, Healthier Hospitals Initiative

The notion of looking for the cause of the cause is a familiar application in sustainability and the Healthier Hospitals Initiative. For years, I implemented recycling and waste programs as the Waste Manager at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York.  We worked to clean up messes every single day. It’s like Sisyphus and his rock: push the rock up the hill each day, watch it roll back down the hill at the end of a long day, and then push it back up again. This Greek myth, which embodies how punishing such a useless act can be and how it can lead to extreme frustration, is an analogy of the health care system model today and its many “first steps” toward sustainability.  As a waste manager, I was faced each day with a pile of new material to manage. A new pile – just like the day before and the day before that.

The Healthier Hospital Initiative frames action around making changes in manufacturing and purchasing that can prevent waste and keep toxic materials from entering the waste stream. Rather than avoiding consumption of mercury-contaminated fish, we can avoid purchasing mercury altogether.   Instead of just recycling, we can reformulate surgical kits and prevent unnecessary components. . We can avoid or reduce chemicals like DEHP, brominated fire retardants, perfluorinated compounds, formaldehyde.  We can buy less meat and sugar-sweetened beverages.. We can reduce dependence on coal-fired power plants through green energy procurement or renewable energy sources, and we can consume less energy altogether. These acts of prevention can result in a safer environment, reduced costs, and healthier people. 

By enrolling in the Healthier Hospitals Initiative, facilities demonstrate that they “get it.” They are joining a community and working together to take action.  They understand that sustainability prevents problems and is a prescription both for maintaining health and for controlling the excessive use of natural resources at the expense of public health, now and in the future.

Take a close look at the HHI challenges to see opportunities for prevention – every single challenge addresses prevention, health, wellness and front-door solutions!  Let’s stop cleaning up the same mess every single day and address the root cause for a healthier future.   HHI is the vehicle to use data to demonstrate the value of greening the supply chain, energy conservation, safer materials and healthier foods.

Tell us how your leadership frames sustainability and moves it beyond a blue bin by the copier and towards the bigger issues in health care today -- around quality, safety, mission, public health and prevention.


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