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From Sustainability to the White House

By Knox Singleton, CEO of Inova Health System

Of all the things Inova excels at, I never thought our sustainability program would be the thing to land us at the White House. After all, all five of our hospitals ranked top 20 in the country by US News & World Report! We protect the health of members of our community who would otherwise go without coverage. We treat sports stars, politicians, celebrities, and even ex-Vice Presidents. We save lives every day. With this laundry list of accomplishments running through my mind, I stepped through the security gate at the White House Executive Offices on July 24 to speak on a panel about one thing that doesn’t generally make the standard list of hospital accomplishments: sustainability.

I had been invited to present Inova’s perspective on sustainability in a discussion on “Greening America’s Hospitals” – to reflect upon the role of sustainability within our organization. To share what our program looks like. To discuss the function of leadership, healthcare professionals, and support teams in our sustainability efforts. To explore the reasons Inova has chosen to spend our time and energy developing a world-class sustainability program when there are clearly other ways we could use these precious resources.

But sitting at a table at the front of the room, alongside an all-star panel of top healthcare sustainability experts from across the nation, I realized that my real role in this discussion was not simply to present the basics of our sustainability program – it was to use the story of sustainability at Inova to create a case for action at other hospitals. My job was to highlight the connection between healthcare and sustainability, two concepts that may seem unrelated at first but in fact are deeply connected and closely related. Because as a healthcare system that is committed to first doing no harm, sustainability is intrinsic in all we do.

You see, sustainability is not just about taking a bus or buying greener products, eating local foods or recycling. While these are all things one can do to be more “sustainable,” they are each a means to an end and not just the end itself. The true concept of sustainability reaches far beyond such actions. It’s not about taking Inova’s commuter shuttle bus, it’s the fact that doing so reduces air pollution that contributes to asthma, bronchitis and other respiratory problems. It’s not just buying something “green,” it’s using our dollars as consumers to create a market for healthcare products that are free from harmful chemicals. It's not following a food trend, it's choosing to serve the freshest, most nutritious ingredients possible and supporting our local economy in the process. And it’s not just placing a bottle in the recycling bin, it’s creating a waste stream that is cheaper to dispose of than regular garbage – allowing dollars that would have otherwise been spent on waste to instead support improved patient care.

It is our professional duty as healthcare providers to promote the healthiest future possible.The real reason I was at the White House on this very special July morning was to help other healthcare organizations see how sustainability supports this mission. To show anyone willing to listen how, if the choices we make today directly affect the health of generations of the future, then sustainability is the key to a healthy future. And while I would never downplay that laundry list of extraordinary contributions Inova has made or accomplishments achieved within the realm of medicine, I would simply suggest one major addition. Because our greatest success stories are not of the patients we treat but of those who never have to set foot within our facilities in the first place. And sustainability is an essential part of this goal.

Last year, Inova became a founding sponsor of the Healthier Hospitals Initiative, a platform to help healthcare organizations affect widespread, meaningful change through sustainability. Inova has committed to all six of the HHI Challenges: Engaged Leadership, Healthier Food, Leaner Energy, Less Waste, Safer Chemicals and Smarter Purchasing. What are your ideas for how we can create an impact in these areas? What do you do to help green your hospital? 

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