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Area hospitals get healthier: Improving food, cutting energy use

Author: Priyanka Dayal McCluskey 

The sustainability trend is finally coming to the hospital industry in a big way.

Dozens of Massachusetts hospitals — including six in just the past month — have signed on to a national initiative to get “healthier” by improving their food options, cutting waste and reducing energy use.

“We felt we needed to be part of the solution by providing a healthier environment,” said Vanessa Kortze, spokeswoman for Lawrence General Hospital, which joined the Healthier Hospitals Initiative last week.

Lawrence General is starting with changes to its food and beverage options. Already, the hospital has cut sugary sodas from its catering menu and almost entirely from patient menus, and rearranged drinks in its cafeterias so water, not soda, is eye-level. Next, food and nutrition director Rick McIsaac plans to revamp the hot meals.

Some foods — fried chicken, Alfredo sauce, onion rings — have no place in a hospital, McIsaac said.

“That’s not really appropriate to have inside a health care institution,” he said. “It should be ‘come get your grilled chicken on a bed of lettuce with a seltzer water.’”

At Partners Healthcare, John Messervy, director of capital and facility planning, acknowledged such changes can come with higher costs.

“That’s one of the struggles: how do you balance the increased cost of the locally grown produce against the health benefits of that,” Messervy said. “Some of our hospitals have said it’s not a significant difference and others are still wrestling with it.”

But the region’s dominant health care system, which was one of the founders of the Healthier Hospitals Initiative in 2012, has made other changes that already are paying back, he said. Partners spent $60 million to reduce energy use, but that investment was returned in less than four years.

“Often, people think going green is more expensive. What we’ve been able to show is sustainability is a smart business decision,” said Seema Wadhwa, director of the Healthier Hospitals Initiative. “Wasting less means saving more.”

The initiative has enrolled about 900 hospitals nationwide, which agree to tackle any of six categories: engaged leadership, healthier food, leaner energy, less waste, safer chemicals and smarter purchasing.

These seemingly different goals are grouped together, Messervy said, because, “In the end it really is about looking to reduce the chemical exposure of our patients and our employees. The chemical exposure comes from lots of different areas: from carbon-based fuels, from additives in food, from various toxic chemicals ... even some of the clinical instruments.”

The Massachusetts Hospital Association, which officially became a supporter of the program in February, is working to enroll more hospitals and share best practices with them.

“Our hospitals and staff are extremely busy right now,” said Anuj Goel, the MHA’s vice president of legal and regulatory affairs. “They don’t have time to do a lot of searching nationally and see what is out there. We’re getting all that and saying ‘here you go.’”

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