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Linking Healthy Hospitals with Healthy Communities and a Healthy Planet

By Gary Cohen, President and Founder, Health Care Without Harm.

Last week a coalition of eleven hospital systems and partnering health groups launched a new campaign to challenge the entire healthcare sector to embed sustainability into the core operating model of 21st century health care. The Healthier Hospitals Initiative (, which includes over 500 hospitals nationwide, plans to enroll more than 2,000 hospitals in a nationwide effort to reinvent hospitals as community anchors for health, sustainability and disease prevention.  

The timing for this Initiative could not be more urgent. It is becoming impossible to support healthy people on a sick planet. We have an epidemic of cancer, obesity, diabetes and asthma in this country which is threatening to overwhelm our entire healthcare system. Cancer impacts one in two men and one in three women. Learning disabilities affects one in six children. More than 100 million Americans are obese. A growing body of research confirms that these diseases are linked to environmental exposures in our food, air, water, and consumer products. From both an economic and public health perspective, it is no longer viable to simply focus on treatment of  these and other chronic diseases, which now account for 70 percent of all healthcare costs.  We need to prevent them from happening in the first place. 

A healthy environment is not a luxury item. It is an essential human right. We not only need to defend our air, our water, our food supply, our homes and communities, we need to defend the first environment – the bodies of our families, our children and grandchildren.  It is a violation of human rights that children are being born with over 100 toxic chemicals already in their bodies.   What hope do we have of reversing the epidemic of chronic disease in America if children are being born pre-polluted, and are at increased risk to suffer the health consequences these pollutants bring?  Every child has a right to be born toxic-free. Every mother has a right to nurse her child with nature's purest food without the contamination of industrial and agricultural chemicals. 

Together with our partners, which represent about 500 hospitals nationwide, we have developed implementation packages with proven strategies that we will share with every hospital and clinic in America. We will help healthcare leaders learn how to operate cancer centers without carcinogens and children's hospitals without chemicals linked to birth defects. We will help hospitals eliminate asthma triggers that make nursing one of the most hazardous professions in the country. And we will transform the food purchasing practices of hospitals to support farmer's markets, create local and sustainable food systems, and serve healthier beverages.

Healthcare represents 18 percent of our entire economy.  If we aggregate the purchasing power of healthcare, we can lead the economy toward renewable energy, green chemicals, safer products and more sustainable and healthier food systems.  Over the course of this 3-year initiative, we will create a catalytic impact on patients, staff, and communities nationwide and accelerate innovation to reduce our climate impact, detox our supply chain, and kick our addiction to junk food and sugar beverages.

Our work is not done with simply these commitments. The problem of environmental impacts on health is an issue worldwide. Health Care Without Harm is also working with hospitals in England, Argentina, China, Sweden, Brazil, Indonesia, Tanzania and many other countries to share best practices through a global network as we transform healthcare to lead our civilization to a healthier and more sustainable economy. At this critical point in history, when our nation is crippled with illness and our planet is under extreme stress, we need the health care sector to use its power and fulfill its mission of saving lives by healing not only our bodies, but our environment and communities as well. 


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