The gradual greening of healthcare

Books cost too much!

That was the slogan of Crown Books, broadcast in commercials during the 1980s and 1990s that featured grating company founder Robert Haft.

As irritating as that slogan was, it could be more soberly applied to hospitals, ambulatory surgical centers, outpatient clinics, physician offices and every other site where provider services are delivered. Healthcare costs too much.

I'm not referring to the bill for the 15-minute consult. I mean environmentally. Providers are voracious consumers of resources and big emitters of pollution. Hospitals require huge amounts of electricity to power their equipment, light miles of corridors and environmentally control what can be 1 million square feet of space or more. Much of that electricity is generated by burning coal. All of those requirements are further compounded by the fact hospitals operate around the clock. They also employ thousands of people, most of whom commute to their jobs alone in automobiles, encouraging more greenhouse emissions. All healthcare providers also generate profuse amounts of medical waste, much incinerated as a matter of compliance or routine for decades. According to Health Care Without Harm, a Boston-based environmental group, 10 percent of the nation's mercury emissions in the 1990s came from the burning of medical waste.

Healthcare's Yeti-sized environmental footprint may be the industry's single most under-reported story over the decades. However, that is beginning to change.

Despite the current political and ideological tug-of-war over whether global warming exists, healthcare is quietly going green. There were more than 2,400 medical waste incinerators in the U.S. in the 1980s. Fewer than 100 operate today.

That's the type of unsexy story that often goes unreported, but the profile of green healthcare has risen in recent years. Kaiser Permanente has vowed to cut its energy usage by 20 percent, and it's announced deals with renewable energy firms to install solar panels and fuel cells at more than a dozen of its facilities throughout California. It's also given significant grants to install solar panels at community clinics and to sponsor farmers' markets in order to discourage the long-haul transport of produce.

As the economies of scale boot green healthcare, it's becoming more of a bottom line proposition than touchy-feely. Gunderson Lutheran Hospital in La Cross, Wis., saved $800,000 a year by cutting its energy consumption 20 percent. The HealthTrust GPO's instruments recycling program kept 19 tons of medical waste from the landfill in 2009 and has saved about $28 million since the program was initiated.

Books indeed cost too much, but retailers like Crown--crushed a decade ago by family feuding and online retailers like Amazon--were expendable and replaceable. Healthcare delivery is not. The battle cry here should not induce wincing and a desire to switch channels, but be a siren call to every hospital manager looking to squeeze a little more from the bottom line and keep their communities a little cleaner. - Ron