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Minimizing Environmental Footprint while Delivering Affordable Healthcare

gerwig, kathy, kaiser permanenteMost people agree that a healthy environment is a necessary foundation for human health. And yet, our society faces an interesting paradox in health care: as hospitals deliver care to individuals, their environmental footprints – pollution, energy use, waste production, unsustainable food services – can be harmful to our health.

Greening health care, the benefits

The health care sector can have a significant impact in improving the environment in a number of crucial areas, but a key question remains: can environmental stewardship strategies in health care coexist with today’s constant pressure to cut costs? In short, the answer is yes – and it can help reduce health care costs for everyone.

There is a preponderance of evidence that a greener health care enterprise is not only affordable but often results in an improved cost structure. With little or no investment, significant operating savings can be realized. A recent study published by the Commonwealth Fund found that if the health care industry conserved energy, reduced waste and more efficiently purchased operating supplies, it could save more than $15 billion over 10 years.

While these numbers are impressive, the importance of sustainability in health care cannot be boiled down to just the bottom line. We have to remember that greening the health care industry does not just save money, it also saves lives and makes care more affordable for everyone.

Take for example the Fable Hospital, a 300-bed, 600,000 square-foot regional medical center built at a cost of $350 million in 2011. Fable was designed and constructed to meet the US Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) gold-certification level for green building design, construction, operations and maintenance. To do so, it included the best innovations for which there was strong evidence in the scientific literature that they would improve patient and employee safety and health care quality while also reducing operating costs, even if initial construction costs are higher.

Fable Hospital’s features include:

  • Larger single-patient, acuity-adaptable rooms to reduce incidents of health care-associated infections and patient transfers
  • Use of nontoxic building materials to reduce the effects of indoor air pollution
  • High-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtration systems
  • Larger windows to increase the beneficial effects of natural light and nature views
  • Single-use air circulation systems to minimize the spread of infections
  • Heat recovery systems, high-efficiency mechanical equipment, and external building glazing to reduce fossil fuel consumption
  • Healing gardens accessible by patients and staff
  • Low-flow water fixtures and rainwater recapture systems to reduce water consumption; among dozens of other features.

The Fable Hospital is, in fact, a fable, illustrated in an essay by Blair Sadler and other health care quality experts with assistance from the Center for Health Design. But the economic value of the improved clinical quality and environmental impacts of the added features, based on evidence from actual hospitals, is real.

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