The COVID-19 pandemic brought unique challenges to the health care sector, such as staffing shortages, operational irregularities, and significant supply chain challenges. Practice Greenhealth will soon provide a separate analysis on aspects of the pandemic that challenged operational norms and how it affected sustainability performance.
A focus on sustainability has allowed many health care organizations to drive environmental improvements while reducing the externalities and negative health impacts of their operations. These programs continue to demonstrate it is possible to significantly reduce cost while adding value to the organization. In this unparalleled year, resilience, climate, and equity were at the forefront for many hospitals.
The 269 hospitals that contributed data as a part of the 2021 Environmental Excellence Awards collectively saved more than $105.2 million on sustainability initiatives in 2020, while pushing the market for more environmentally preferable products and materials with more than $566 million in sustainable spending. These hospitals reduced more than 78 million kBtus of energy, saved more than 31 million gallons of water, diverted over 204 million pounds of waste from the landfill through recycling, and avoided over 78,500 metric tons of carbon emissions through mitigation projects. And that’s in a year where substantial staffing challenges likely led to the underreporting of ongoing energy (only 17% of hospitals reporting), water (7% reporting), and carbon mitigation projects (11% reporting).
The annual benchmark report highlights the best practices for sustainability integration in eleven different impact areas and provides relevant benchmarks for improving hospital performance. The 2020 data also provides one of the few public snapshots of greenhouse gas emissions from health care, including emissions from energy use, inhaled anesthetics, fleet, and meat/poultry purchases. This data set can be a valuable tool for an array of stakeholders. Hospitals and health systems can utilize it to drive organizational goal-setting and investment in sustainability programming. The health care supply chain can leverage the data to research and strengthen markets for new sustainable products and services. Local and regional governments and municipalities may be interested in tracking uptake of sustainable initiatives. And academic partners and others can explore the data to glean additional insights and impacts that they can extrapolate further for peer-reviewed journals. Some highlights of the report include:
- Two-thirds of respondents have appointed or hired someone to lead sustainability efforts at the facility level.
- Almost 60% of hospitals reported they have made a formal external commitment to taking climate action, and 50% of hospitals provided education on the connection between climate and health to their staff, patients, clinicians, and/or the community in the past year.
- 72% of hospitals created procedures to reuse or extend the use of PPE in response to COVID-19, building resilience at a time of extraordinary supply chain stress.
- Sixty percent of hospitals reported partnering with the community to address community needs brought on or exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Almost 80% of hospitals conducted intentional work on racial equity, and 63% are building partnerships with community stakeholders and community-based organizations to address social and environmental determinants of health.
- Hospitals implementing environmental initiatives in operating rooms saved more than $40 million in aggregate in 2020, with a median of over $56,000 in savings per facility. Seventy-five percent of them held education on the environmental impacts of inhaled anesthetics. Facilities tracking associated greenhouse gas emissions and costs prevented an estimated 16,000 metric tons of CO₂e from inhaled anesthetics and $1.8 million in spend on these potent greenhouse gases.
- Reporting hospitals are driving the market for safer and more sustainable products in health care and spent more than $131 million last year on EPEAT-registered electronics, more than $4.7 million on third-party certified green cleaning chemicals, nearly $186 million on furniture and furnishings that avoid target chemicals of concern, and $34 million on sustainable foods and beverages in 2020.
- More than 80% of facilities indicated they are actively working to reduce the amount of meat and poultry purchased for cafeteria/retail and patient food services, improving health and reducing carbon emissions. Sixty-one percent of facilities now preferentially purchase sustainably-produced meat and poultry.