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Health care institutions need to be leaders not laggards on the environment

When asked about what they’re doing to protect the environment, most health executives will point to a number of initiatives, undertaken over the years, in energy, water and waste management. Hospitals, nursing homes and clinics have been making incremental improvements in their environmental record since the oil crisis of the 70’s and should be commended for their efforts. But today, its simply not enough. After all, health, the environment and health care are inextricably linked. There is growing evidence of the link between cancer, birth defects, respiratory and cardiovascular diseases and the kinds of solid, liquid and gaseous wastes that are produced by hospitals. Also, there is growing recognition of the significant contribution that hospitals’ green house gas emissions are making to man-made climate change. Yet environmental stewardship is rarely on the meeting agendas of hospital or nursing home boards, executive teams or medical staffs and it is rarely mentioned in their strategic plans. Health care institutions need to be leaders not laggards on the environment.

“Going green” can improve an organization’s corporate image and reputation and in the long run, it can save money. In 2009, recognizing the important leadership role that health care plays in climate change mitigation, the Canadian Health Care Association, all major health professional associations and a variety of national green health organizations issued calls to action for governments, health care organizations and individuals in the industry to minimize their negative impact on the environment. Largely, these calls have fallen on deaf ears and little action has been taken. Competing priorities, a lack of resources and few champions with knowledge and clout, mean that environmental stewardship is placed at the bottom of the large pile of things that need to get done. But as the environment takes centre stage nationally and internationally, the health care industry needs to step up and show more leadership and set examples for other energy intensive industries and toxic waste generators.

Big, complex organizations do not change easily. They need to be skilfully guided on a new path, gaining momentum as staff are informed of the need for change and become engaged in the change process. Health care organizations need to build a board approved plan with defined targets and accountabilities. The plan needs to focus on the three key areas that will improve corporate image and reputation namely, green food, water conservation and green transportation. As well, the plan should consider three key areas that can reduce costs and free up resources for patient care, namely energy, waste and supply chain management. Measuring progress against established goals throughout the enterprise is essential. “What get’s measured get’s improved” according to management guru, Peter Drucker. Finally, communication with all stakeholders, including the board, government, staff, patients and the public will improve accountability and transparency and build confidence in the effort.

As a creative means to achieve green goals, publicly funded health care organizations can also consider entering into low cost agreements with private sector clean tech companies that are a growing part of our local economy. This would provide important proving grounds and reference showcases for emerging companies and ultimately increase the tax base that funds health care. By taking a more systematic approach and using more intentional design, hospitals, nursing homes and clinics can really have an impact the environment and become leading examples for others. That’s all important, not only for us now, but also for future generations.

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