Hackensack Meridian hospitals first to attain Joint Commission's new sustainability certification

Four Hackensack Meridian Health (HMH) hospitals are the first in the country to achieve the Joint Commission’s sustainable healthcare certification. 

The voluntary program for hospitals went into effect at the start of this year and provides a framework to help organizations tackle decarbonization efforts. Attaining the certification means the hospitals have met rigorous standards and elements of performance to accelerate the sector’s sustainability efforts, according to a joint press release.

The healthcare industry is responsible for 9% of the nation’s carbon emissions—more than the aviation industry. Advocates are increasingly pushing the sector to address its carbon footprint, and a few key players have emerged, leading the way in climate commitments.

“The link between equity and environmental sustainability in healthcare is undeniable. Not everyone is equally at risk from the effects of climate change. The individuals least able to compensate for the effects are those already burdened with adverse social determinants of health,” Jonathan Perlin, M.D., Ph.D., president and CEO of the Joint Commission, said in the announcement. 

To achieve the certification, HMH hospitals set priorities and governance for sustainability initiatives, identifying baselines to measure three sources of greenhouse gas emissions and developing an action plan to reduce them. The emissions the hospitals chose to focus on were energy use (fuel combustion), purchased electricity and anesthetic gas. The hospitals also underwent a virtual certification review to assess their compliance with the program requirements. Recertification is expected every two years. 

The four certified HMH hospitals are: Hackensack Meridian University Medical Center, Hackensack Meridian Bayshore Medical Center, Hackensack Meridian Jersey Shore University Medical Center and Hackensack Meridian Ocean University Medical Center. 

“Our main focus has been making this a part of everything that we do,” HMH Vice President of Sustainability Kyle Tafuri told Fierce Healthcare. “When the Joint Commission came out with this certification, we were ready for it, because it’s just what we do.”

Tafuri’s job is to make sure the health system is aligned with environmental sustainability across the board, from its 18 hospitals to the medical school. HMH had been collaborating with physicians on sustainability, encouraging them to educate patients on things like the benefits of plant-based diets, integrating goals into contracts and adding sustainability into its med school’s curriculum. 

“How do you have health equity without clean air, clean water and healthy soil? Those are pillars of health,” Tafuri said.

Once the commission officially announced the certification, several HMH hospital presidents and the regulatory team reached out to Tafuri expressing their interest in becoming one of the first to attain it. “When you have that level of buy-in, it helps drastically,” Tafuri said.

From November 2023 onward, the regulatory team met weekly with the participating hospitals and their leadership teams. Each hospital participated in a “mock visit,” practicing what they would present on the day of the certification. Ultimately, the process “really helped put a structure around what we were doing,” Tafuri noted. 

HMH’s purchasing department green team meets regularly to discuss upcoming contracts and to initiate conversations with its suppliers. If all suppliers knocked down their scope 1 and 2 emissions, that helps HMH address its scope 3 emissions, Tafuri explained.

“You can’t get any of this work done on your own. It takes partnerships,” he said. Not all vendors are ready to dive in, but they are at least willing to talk about it. The goal is to start having the conversation and to work together, Tafuri said.

Other HMH hospitals are preparing to also apply for the certification, Tafuri said. 

“Hospitals are competitive, even within our own network,” Tafuri joked. “Once hospitals found out the first four got it, I was receiving phone calls saying, ‘How come we didn't go in this first batch?’”

HMH, which is among the organizations that have signed the White House and Department of Health and Human Services climate pledge, promises to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 and to achieve net zero by 2050. It recently invested more than $116 million in energy-efficient infrastructure upgrades and began implementing 30 megawatts of on-site solar and battery storage. It also saved $1.71 million by reprocessing medical devices and 40,000 pounds diverted from the landfill, among other efforts.

Four HMH hospitals were also among the first in the country to achieve the Joint Commission’s healthcare equity certification in late 2023.

The sustainability certification program was inspired by requests from healthcare organizations looking to accelerate their sustainable practices and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, according to the commission. Originally, the voluntary program had been proposed as a requirement but shifted after the organization faced widespread industry backlash, primarily from senior hospital administrators, Fierce Healthcare reported.

The commission has previously argued that healthcare organizations will see lasting benefits from the program such as cost savings, operating efficiencies, staff retention, potential tax credits through federal incentives and gains in health equity. It offers an online resource center offering key strategies, tools and content to help organizations get started or build on existing sustainability work. 

Ultimately, having the certification lends credibility to HMH’s ongoing sustainability efforts, per Tafuri. It also helps encourage vendors to step up. 

“This is a major boost to our partners out there, showing them that this work is real and we’ve set goals,” Tafuri said. “We all need to be working on this together.” 

“At the end of the day, it’s about creating healthier communities,” Tafuri concluded.