Healthier Hospitals Hold Promise for Patients and Communities

Photo courtesy Healthier Hospitals Initiative
HHI Challenge April 3 at Kaiser Permante Center for Total Health
The places we count on to help us get well are learning new ways to get healthier themselves.  A group of more than 500 hospitals in eleven of the nation's largest health systems is leading the way with the Healthier Hospitals Initiative.  By cutting out waste, using better products and encouraging healthy choices, HHI promises to help patients, employees and communities.

We've all heard science-based concerns about using PVC products, and we now have some alternatives at home -- for instance shower curtains made PVC-free.  Until recently, many hospitals used IV bags and tubing made with PVC.  Leading health care group Kaiser Permanente has converted to PVC-free IV bags and tubing, as well as ID bracelets.  While that may give some patients peace of mind, the switch to more sustainable materials has also cut costs and materials waste. 

Kathy Gerwig says Kaiser has developed a scorecard to help hospital purchasers check for chemicals of concern as well as waste and recycling efforts when they decide on a product.  Kaiser's Vice President for Workplace Safety and Environmental Stewardship admits children are the most vulnerable to toxic exposures, even in a hospital.  "One of the ares that we're focused on is safer chemicals. We know they have the most profound health effects on infants and young children. We've examined how we can improve performance in our neonatal units, for example. Kaiser is already looking at places to make a change, we've been looking at that for a long time. Given the current regulatory environment, there's no way to prevent new chemicals of concern from coming into our hospital unless we have something like our scorecard to use."

Healthier, locally based food choices provide another way for hospitals to be lifestyle leaders.  They're offering more fresh foods like salads from nearby farms and fewer sugary drinks.  Dr. Brad Perkins is Chief Transformation officer at Vanguard and says of the foods component, "Hospitals have the opportunity to set new social norms."  Gerwig agrees that hospitals can look beyond a singular goal of cafeterias being profitable and take a stronger stand in supporting better food choices that are also sustainable.

Hospital employees can benefit from not only a healthier diet, but from less exposure to toxic chemicals in cleaning supplies.  HHI says switching to green cleaning products can eliminate a primary cause of work-related asthma in nurses and cleaning staff.  This effort falls under the larger challenge for hospitals to use safer chemicals. 

Participating hospitals are also looking closer at energy waste in every item purchased.  Everything from hvac equipment and computers to smaller machines used at patients' bedsides can save thousands of dollars each year by being energy efficient.  HHI has several examples like these that can improve a hospital's bottom line.  For instance, Hospital Corporation of America found a way to save more than $21 million last year by reprocessing some single use devices.  Gerwig asks,  "Who would not want to take the opportunity today to reduce health risks? And who would not want to take the opportunity today to reduce health costs?"

Here's a look at the six core achievements HHI is focusing on:

*Engage in leadership on environmental health and sustainability

*Serve healthier foods and beverages

*Reduce energy waste

*Reduce waste and recycle

*Use safer chemicals

*Purchase environmentally preferable products

When health systems decide to participate in the voluntary programs, HHI provides resources and expertise to help make them successful.  Even competing hospital systems can benefit from the collective buying power behind the movement toward safer chemicals and environmentally preferable products.  You can learn more about the Healthier Hospitals Initiative at its new website.

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