What Can Healthcare Do To Prevent — Not Just Respond To — Natural Disasters

By John Strong

Devastating hurricanes this summer. An unprecedented wildfire season in California, consuming homes, businesses and sadly lives, in areas that for decades had been ruled “safe” from wildfire. Neighborhoods in Santa Rosa deemed safe from the time houses were built on the land, went up in flames after a wildfire jumped a major freeway at night. Hospitals evacuated at great risk to patients, families and staff.

Besides being ready to respond to disasters of these proportions, healthcare supply chain leaders need to think about how to take an active role in preventing them in the first place. No matter where you land on the climate change debate, there is a significant body of evidence that shows people’s activities on earth play a role. In fact, healthcare contributes about ten percent of U. S. greenhouse gases attributed to global warming. These gases come from the generation of energy to power hospitals, anesthetic gases and a host of chemicals and gases used to make products routinely used in the healthcare setting.

Are you willing to accept these disasters as the “new normal”? I’m not, and we need to act as a profession right now to ensure that our future generations do not have to deal with these issues — because as a nation we can’t afford to deal with them after the fact. The products you buy can make a difference — how they are manufactured, what they are made of, and how they are disposed of all have impact on the health of patients, staff, our communities, and our planet.

As a healthcare “industry” we are beginning to wake up to our role in both creating these disasters — as well as having to deal with their consequences. Healthcare providers talk about “community health” but often stop short of taking action to improve the health of their communities by showing patients how to eat better, take preventive steps for their own health, and avoid harmful products and substances in their daily life. As an industry we don’t do this because we generally don’t ask the detailed, tough questions necessary to determine how safe the products are that we build our buildings with, and treat our patients with. Rather, we look for fast and easy answers.

While the Paris Accord is a giant global step forward to taking action against greenhouse gases, it will be meaningless unless health care providers and their suppliers take responsibility now, and act together to limit their environmental footprint. As a community of professionals, involved at the initial steps in product selection, we need to do better; we need to lead.

Here are some steps to consider that supply chain professionals should be evaluating and implementing in their daily work to improve their environmental footprint and improve patient outcomes including readmission to the hospital.

  1. Support the activities of any existing sustainability programs that you have going on in your facility — or at your system office. Be an active participant, and explore ways that sustainability attributes become a component of your value analysis program, and new product review processes.
  2. Better yet, start a working group with defined objectives. Learn how at Practice Greenhealth or Health Care Without Harm.
  3. Insure that there is C-Suite level support for all sustainability initiatives, and make certain that your goals are tied to sustainability — as well as cost-savings efforts. In some cases, you may be the one creating the change.
  4. Forget the notion that greener, more sustainable products need to cost more. They don’t. Greenhealth Exchange is already proving that by aggregating the volume of just nine health systems, we can reduce the price for these types of products.
  5. Also lose the notion that green and sustainable products do not perform as well as “other” products. We are proving every day that they are…and you can save money in the bargain. How can a product with a harmful chemical in its list of ingredients really be said to perform better than the one without it?
  6. If you are a supply chain leader, you should already be embracing a true leadership mentality that includes being the champion on important issues and realizing acceptable risk to try new ideas.

As we examine more and more products, we are learning that they may be labeled for a particular environmental attribute, but also contain many other attributes including harmful chemicals, and/or that they are big energy users. Products containing known carcinogens and growth inhibitors are packaged in 40% recycled cardboard. Does that part of the green and sustainable picture matter as much as their other negative effects? As a supplier, should you get evaluation points for that single attribute? We don’t think so, and believe this needs to be carefully called out and evaluated as part of the whole. Sometimes being a little bit green really doesn’t matter.

I get the sense that many healthcare supply chain professionals think that by convening committees and discussing the properties of products ad nauseum they are “doing enough”. As a community of professionals, we are not. Let’s consider some facts around just the more recent fires in Sonoma and Napa Counties in California:

  • Hospitals Evacuated: 3
  • Patients Re-Located: 300
  • Estimated Homes Destroyed: 8,889
  • Deaths: 38

Perhaps some of you have witnessed this catastrophe and know the human suffering and loss that has occurred. Being involved in community health and safety means prevention — not just dealing with the consequences of natural disasters, and throwing up our hands and saying there is nothing you can do. There is.

I suspect that most supply chain professionals are proud of the places they work. Perhaps many have embraced the call of their employers and Accountable Care Organizations to improve community health, ensure patient, staff, and visitor safety, and to help educate patients and their families on living better, healthier lives.

You cannot do this work without getting involved and helping lead it. You can’t do this work by delegating it to your GPO. It is a complicated supply chain — and your suppliers have even more complicated ones. So, supplier communication and partnership is needed there, too. Just because one GPO has hundreds of thousands of products under contract with at least one “environmentally preferred” attribute, doesn’t make the products an environmentally acceptable product — or even one that you should be using.

At Greenhealth Exchange we are working to prevent future disasters like the California fires, not just respond to them. You can, too. This is important work, and future generations of patients, visitors and your own team members are counting on you to take responsibility now. Inaction is not an option.