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Hospital CEO: It's time to embrace environmental healthcare

August 28th, 2013

by J. Knox Singleton

After receiving my master's degree in health administration from Duke University in 1973, I wanted a career where I could meld my business skills with my drive to help others. It seemed to me that hospital administration might be a career that would allow me to combine my skills and passion into a rewarding career.

Little did I know where this path would lead me.

Recently, I co-authored a book, "Sustainability for Healthcare Management: A Leadership Imperative," that challenges healthcare leaders to think through the implications of our decisions from fiscal, societal and environmental perspectives. It links health values with sustainability drivers to enlighten leadership about the value of sustainability as we move toward a new paradigm of health.

While sustainability is not unique to health, it is a unique vehicle for promoting healthy values.


Enter the Healthier Hospitals Initiative, a campaign in the United States and Canada designed to improve health of patients, staff and the community; reduce environmental impact by the sector; and experience considerable fiscal savings that reduce the overall national healthcare costs through better public health.

The foundation of HHI consists of 13 sponsoring health systems representing more than 500 hospitals with more than $20 billion in purchasing power, and three nonprofit organizations--Health Care Without Harm, The Center for Health Design and Practice Greenhealth. HHI encourages environmentally responsible practices by spurring sustainable day-to-day operations across the healthcare sector.

To mark its one-year anniversary, HHI released its first progress report, which collected data on the environmentally sustainable efforts by 370 hospitals across the nation and Canada. These HHI-member hospitals indicated they have reduced their environmental footprint, lowered costs and improved patient health by incorporating sustainability initiatives into their business models.

The report marks the first time hospitals have quantified sustainability efforts by collecting and reporting data to show movement. The data in the report represents six "challenge" areas: engaged leadership, healthier food, leaner energy, less waste, safer chemicals, and smarter purchasing. Each member has committed to improve the health and safety of patients, staff and communities by implementing at least one of these six challenges.

I am very excited about HHI's first report because it shows definitive movement toward a more sustainable hospital environment. The report serves as a baseline from which we can measure our future successes by encouraging hospitals to purchase more environmentally-preferable supplies, serve healthier foods, use less energy, reduce waste and more.

Some of the report's key findings include:

  • More than 50 million pounds of materials recycled, plus an additional 61.5 million pounds of construction and demolition waste kept out of landfills through reuse and recycling;
  • About $32 million in savings resulting from single-use medical device reprocessing;
  • Nearly $9 million spent on local/sustainable food options; and
  • Almost $19 million spent on healthier, PVC/DEHP-free medical products.

As a hospital executive who is passionate about change, I challenge my colleagues to join me in promoting environmental healthcare.

For the past 25 years, J. Knox Singleton has served as CEO of Inova Health System, an integrated healthcare delivery system in Fairfax, Va. He also is a director and officer of a variety of community organizations that address issues such as affordable housing and human services.


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