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Hospitals turn to sustainable purchasing

Cost-savings alone are reason enough for hospitals to pursue sustainability initiatives, but patients are beginning to pay attention

Chris Nerney, Contributor

More than half of U.S. hospitals now make sustainability a factor in purchasing decisions, according to a recent survey.

Perhaps more significantly, more than 80 percent of hospitals in the U.S. expect to be engaging in sustainability purchasing within two years, the Harris Poll survey of healthcare professionals shows.

There are a “variety of drivers” prompting hospitals to turn to sustainability purchasing, says John Frey, who bears the title of “America’s Sustainability Executive” at Hewlett-Packard.

“In some hospitals, it’s really a cost-reduction initiative,” said Frey, who works with a number of healthcare organizations on sustainability purchasing. “They’re finding that by being more selective in the types of products that they buy – in how they’re packaged, for example – and the amount of energy those products use, it can provide financial benefit to the hospital.”

[See also: Sustainability tips for hospitals.]

Reducing packaging can save money because it cuts down on waste that must be disposed. Costs can even be reduced by reusing transportation packaging materials, a move that helped Utah-based Intermountain Healthcare achieve “an overall 20 percent reduction in cardboard and packaging waste, labor savings, better product protection and a reduced need for storage space,” according to a report this year by the Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership and The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.

In addition to greening the supply chain, hospitals can reduce energy usage by buying electronics products such as computers, monitors, laptops and imaging equipment that are rated highly for energy efficiency.

While cost-savings alone are reason enough for hospitals to pursue sustainability initiatives, Frey cites an important external driver.

“Customers are starting to pay attention to these factors as well, particularly as healthcare costs become a big topic of conversation,” Frey said. “One of the things customers are looking for is whether the hospitals and healthcare providers where they seek their healthcare are doing things to help minimize that cost.”

Getting up to speed

For the hospitals that expect to jump on the green bandwagon in the next two years, there’s a lot to learn. Fortunately, there are a number of resources available to help hospitals launch sustainability purchasing initiatives.

“The best way to get started, specifically in healthcare, is to look at the organizations that already are going down this path and helping hospitals go down this path,” Frey said. “One example would be the Healthier Hospitals Initiative” (HHI).

Begun by a dozen of the largest health systems in the U.S. and several organizations dedicated to green healthcare, HHI is a guide for hospitals and health systems to reduce energy consumption and waste, select safer and less toxic products, and purchase and server healthier foods. The HHI website includes case studies and success stories from among the nearly 500 hospitals within the initiative’s 12 sponsoring health systems.

Another online source for healthcare sustainability tips and information is Practice Greenhealth, a membership organization that focuses specifically on green purchasing and offers supplier directories, sustainability benchmark reports, business and hospital member toolkits and an energy impact calculator.

Technology vendors such as HP also offer tools for hospitals to engage in sustainable purchasing and operations, including a sustainable IT purchasing guide and a carbon footprint calculator for PCs and printers.

[See also: Sustainability efforts could save healthcare industry $15B over 10 years.]

Frey says the calculator “allows hospitals and other businesses to actually make comparisons and if they know their electrical rate, they can plug it right in and it shows them in dollars and cents what that price difference might be.”

It’s important for hospitals to ensure their business processes are in sync with sustainability initiatives. For example, some IT departments might inadvertently turn off energy efficiency features on a new computer in the process of installing their own software.

“Buying the most energy efficiency products is a great first step, but make sure things aren’t being removed or changed downstream by a different group,” he said. “CFOs are going to be looking for that return on investment, so it’s really contingent on them to drive these initiatives beyond purchasing and sustainability but broadly throughout the hospital so they get all the benefits.”