by Suzanne Abbott
Hospitals emit roughly 8% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, produce more than 4.67 million tons of waste annually, and use 7% of the nation’s commercial water supply, according to Practice Greenhealth, a nonprofit membership organization of healthcare institutions committed to sustainable practices. Hospitals are also the second greatest user of commercial energy behind only commercial food services. In response, sustainable and environmentally sound operational practices in healthcare are evolving from nice-to-have added benefits to strategic investments aimed at reducing a system’s operating costs and producing better patient outcomes.
However, the current uncertainty about federal healthcare policy raises doubts about whether the healthcare industry can maintain this momentum around sustainability. With funding in question, many decision makers have hit pause on projects in general, asking “Are ‘added benefits’ like sustainability justified?”
Most clinicians and health system executives think so. A September 2017 Johnson & Johnson Medical Devices Companies survey of healthcare executives in the U.S., the Voices for Value Insights Series, found that nine out of 10 clinicians and health system executives agree that sustainability provides long-term cost savings and delivers benefits in improved patient care and environmental protection. Significantly, 95% of those surveyed believe that environmental sustainability improves the level of care provided at their healthcare facility. By implementing sustainable- and wellness-driven operation strategies, facilities all over the country can continue reducing their cost of care and improving patient outcomes, while maintaining the momentum in energy conservation, waste management, recycling, and sustainable design.
Long-term cost savings
Sustainable practices have the ability to reduce operating costs on multiple fronts: extending the life of equipment, reducing energy and water consumption, decreasing toxins and waste, and even improving employee performance. Healthcare Finance News recently reported that hospital sustainability practices and procedures could help save the healthcare industry up to $5.4 billion over five years and almost $15 billion over 10 years.
Healthcare organizations spend up to $6.5 billion annually on energy alone, and that cost is rising with technological advancement. In its factsheet “Data Trends: Energy Use in Hospitals,” Energy Star reported that NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital has realized $1.77 million in annual savings since it introduced aggressive energy-saving projects in 2003.
Energy Star further projects that every $1 a nonprofit healthcare organization saves on energy is equivalent to generating $20 in new revenues for hospitals or $10 for medical office buildings. For-profit hospitals, medical offices, and nursing homes can raise their earnings per share a penny by reducing energy costs just 5%, according to Energy Star’s calculations. Energy incentive programs from local utilities can offset the cost of energy upgrades and magnify those investment returns.
Improved patient experience
Healthcare practitioners today are moving beyond the notion of merely treating illness and toward preventative and wellness measures that are often very closely tied to sustainable design, construction, and healthy building operations. Patients and healthcare providers now expect a noninstitutional feeling in their healthcare environments. Sterile sights and smells have given way to outdoor views and exposure to natural daylight. Creating respite spaces for staff, patients, and visitors is just one piece of evidence-based healthcare facility design, which has produced credible research supporting how a design focus on stakeholder interaction within the built environment produces better outcomes for patients through enhanced patient safety and increased staff efficiency and comfort.
Shifting environmental consciousness
Unlike earlier sustainability efforts that focused on a building’s impact on the natural environment, healthcare and corporate facilities have begun a major transition to consider a building’s impact on human occupant health. The healthcare industry is seeing a shift to wellness as a model of care, incorporating the built environment and promoting new design strategies to get there. It is now commonplace to specify healthier building materials that are low maintenance and nontoxic, which in earlier standards were considered a pricey novelty. Decision makers now weigh the impact of our physical environment on patient and public health throughout the life cycle of a building.
The increase in extreme weather events related to climate change is also taking its toll on our healthcare facilities. Recent events have shown how vulnerable our healthcare infrastructure is, and how resiliency and related sustainable building practices are imperative for a healthcare facility to remain functional under the worst storm conditions.
Building resilience and sustainability into hospitals offers long-term benefits to patient health and well-being in addition to operational savings, while providing the capacity to adapt and respond to changing conditions and hazards. Making an investment in healthcare sustainability and wellness pays off.
Suzanne Abbott, LEED AP BD+C, is senior business development manager for SMRT Architects and Engineer Inc., in its Andover office.