Greening health care

Old hypodermic needles

At a recent health care conference on sustainability, Greening Health Care, many participants expressed frustration.

While they regularly followed energy conservation practices at home, (choosing to recycle, buy local, drive energy-efficient cars), they were unable to do the same on the job. In the hospitals and clinics where they worked, they too often saw wasted food, Styrofoam cups stacked by coffee pots, and few, if any, recycling bins for paper.

“As health care providers, we should teach by example,” says Maeve Howett, a faculty member at Emory’s Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing who organized the conference. “We want to use the weight of our profession to put some energy into protecting the environment and sustainability.”

Other like-minded health care professionals and students from across Atlanta gathered at the March conference at Emory to discuss how to raise awareness for sustainability in health care. They shared suggestions and programs from their own workplaces. For example, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta has replaced automatic delivery of generic food trays to patients’ rooms with an individual ordering system that allows patients to custom order only the food they want from a menu. The practice has dramatically reduced food waste. As another example, Emory Healthcare has implemented a “Go Green” campaign to encourage the three R’s—reduce, reuse, and recycle. That includes a sharps recycling program for used needles.

“We want to spread the word beyond Emory and create a dialogue about energy use across Atlanta,” says Howett, whose sister Ciannat Howett is Emory’s director of sustainability and was a conference speaker. Other participants included nurses, facility administrators, dieticians, and nutritionists from Emory, Children’s, Georgia Tech, Georgia State, and other local organizations.

While other parts of the country support strong sustainability efforts within the health care profession, there has been little activity in the Southeast—until now, says Howett. For example, the Maryland chapter of the American Nursing Association has a large environmental working group, and grassroots environmental concerns at the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins led to the founding of a nonprofit organization, Health Care Without Harm (one of the sponsors of the conference at Emory).

Howett hopes this first conference will lead to more lessons on sustainability being worked into the curricula for health students. Already it is creating a growing network of health care professionals who promote environmental initiatives in the workplace.

“The big things such as climate change can make us feel powerless to do anything,” Howett says, “but we can make a difference with the small things by doing the best we can. Every decision we make has a trickle effect.”

For starters, organizers made sure its event was green throughout. They conducted registration and publicity entirely online, used local and organic food for refreshments, and composted and recycled food service waste. Conference planners chose not to increase the carbon footprint by flying in speakers from out of town. In fact, their careful planning allowed them to return more than $850 of their grant. —Rhonda Mullen

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