Hospital's Eco Agenda Saves Money

John Commins, for HealthLeaders Media , April 22, 2009

Every day is Earth Day at Gundersen Lutheran.

The La Crosse, WI-based health system has probably the most ambitious eco-friendly agenda of any healthcare entity in the United States, with a vow to reduce its net carbon emissions footprint to zero by 2014.

"I don't like shooting for fluffy, ethereal, impossible goals. I believe in aiming for real things," says Gundersen Lutheran CEO Jeff Thompson. "When we started this I wanted to see the traction. We did a feasibility study to see if it was possible. It looked like it'd be a hard goal, but a real goal, so that's when we decided we would put a stake in the ground."

The health system's net zero footprint plan includes reducing and recycling waste, energy conservation, and the innovative use of alternative energy generated by wind, sun, water, and a program that captures, cleans, and reuses waste methane gas produced by a local brewery and a landfill.

Thompson says the projects are cost-effective and have galvanized the hospital staff and the community around a noble goal. "To do something that saves money and excites your staff and gets you looked at as a great corporate citizen in your community—that is a triple whammy," he says.

A new survey released today by Practice Greenhealth, the nonprofit networking organization with more than 700 member hospitals, shows that a growing number of hospitals are turning to environmentally friendly practices, with varying levels of success.

The survey found that: 93% of its responding members are implementing energy conservation and efficiency measures; 80% are attempting to reduce the use of hazardous chemicals and materials; 64% implemented waste reduction programs; 58% implemented medical waste reduction programs; 47% implemented green purchasing programs; 31% implemented water reduction programs; and 12% were generating energy onsite.

Practice Greenhealth spokeswoman Eileen Secrest says the recession has dampened the green movement for now. "There certainly are incentives to reduce waste and save money, but the building industry in healthcare was booming until the recession," Secrest says. "That is a real blow to hospitals going green because there were a lot of projects in the pipeline and now they can't get funding. We are hoping some of the stimulus money can go to these projects, but its not there yet."

Thompson says the recession will slow the green movement somewhat, but that there are still cost-saving measures that hospitals can undertake and see immediate returns on investments, starting with energy conservation.

Gundersen Lutheran did an energy audit on their facilities and retro-commissioned their health system to reduce excess use of fans, pumps, and electric motors, and to installed a more-efficient cooling system, all of which cost $2 million. However, the health system is already saving $1 million a year in energy costs with the improvements.

"The bad economy should be an impetus for people to look at this because there is some easy money hanging out there," Thompson says. "I'm not saying you need to go out and buy a $10 million windmill, but you can get a study done to find out where your energy conservation opportunities are. We use a lot more energy and that means we have a bigger opportunity to save money."

Gundersen Lutheran has had a recycling program in place for several years. The hospital had been paying $60 a ton to haul away its garbage, but last year it recycled 270 tons of paper and cardboard, a savings of $16,200 in hauling fees, not counting the resale value of the recycled paper. "We make money on our recycling program," Thompson says. "Is it a huge percentage of my costs? No. But my role as a CEO is to get people excited and engaged in improving the organization."

Thompson says Gundersen Lutheran's staff is proud of its environmental activism, which has also facilitated new relationships with nearby technical schools, organic farmers, and other local businesses. "Our staff wants us to be good citizens, but they don't want it to cost their jobs by doing fluffy stuff," he says. "The fact that they're doing it to improve the community and in a financially strong way, that they can put their hands on it when they recycle paper and batteries and cardboard, this is important to them."

John Commins is a senior editor with HealthLeaders Media.

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