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Minimizing healthcare’s environmental footprint

By Jeff Thompson, MD
CEO, Gundersen Health System

It wasn’t too long ago when you would rarely hear “healthcare” and “sustainability” in the same sentence. After all, many healthcare organizations thought their purpose was to take care of patients in a hospital or clinic. That’s true. But at Gundersen Health System headquartered in the Midwestern city of La Crosse, Wis., we believe it is also our responsibility to help our patients and communities stay well, and part of that is caring for the health of the environment.

We started working on a number of projects in 2003, but in 2008 we took a hard look in the mirror. We knew that healthcare buildings are some of the most energy intensive buildings around (2.5 times more so than commercial office buildings according to the Department of Energy). We knew that our energy costs were rising at an alarming rate of $350,000 a year and growing, and those costs were being passed along to patients in the form of higher healthcare costs. And, we knew we needed to take a hard look at our practices and be willing to take the necessary steps to improve our environmental impact. It was the right thing to do for our patients, our staff and the communities we serve.

We developed our sustainability program, called Envision®, and set a goal that surprised many in the healthcare community: energy independence in 2014. As the CEO of Gundersen Health System, I can tell you that we’re on track to accomplish that goal through vigorous energy conservation measures and renewable energy partnerships.

Our Envision team started with “low hanging fruit.” An energy audit in 2008 opened our eyes to dozens of energy saving opportunities available. We examined our heating/cooling systems, lighting and employee behavior and used a number of measures to improve efficiency and reduce energy demand. By the end of 2009, those efforts led to a 25 percent improvement in our energy efficiency. Our $2 million investment saves the organization more than $1 million every year in lower energy costs.

Energy conservation measures will only take us so far toward our energy independence goal. The rest will come from renewable energy projects. We tapped into a number of natural resources to tap into…and a number of government entities and private businesses who saw the benefits of renewable energy partnerships for our communities. Some of our most successful projects are those we’ve accomplished with community partners.

For example, we worked with our local county government to use previously wasted methane gas from the landfill and turned it into a renewable energy source. The project created a revenue source for La Crosse County, saves our health system hundreds of thousands of dollars and made our Onalaska Campus 100 percent energy independent. We also partnered with the rural village of Cashton, Wis., and Organic Valley, the largest cooperative of organic farms in the country, on a wind farm. The wind farm provides enough electricity for 1,000 homes. It is a source of income for both Gundersen and Organic Valley, and a source of pride for the people who live in Cashton.

Our goals are to decrease pollution and save healthcare dollars. Along the way, we have been able to inspire our staff and community with projects ranging from energy conservation and renewable energy to sustainable foods and waste management. Gundersen Health System is one of thousands of healthcare organizations in our country. If we all join together and work toward the same goal through programs like the Healthier Hospitals Initiative, think of the difference we can make in the health or our communities. Minimizing our environmental footprint is not just a trend. It’s the right thing to do for our patients, our communities and our country. We all just need to look in the mirror, understand we are part of the problem and take action to become part of the solution.

Jeff Thompson, MD, is chief executive officer and chairman of the boards of Gundersen Health System headquartered in La Crosse, Wis., and is a practicing pediatric intensivist and neonatologist. Dr. Thompson has been a visionary leader in the area of environmental stewardship for healthcare organizations.


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