Green initiatives growing among healthcare facilities

November 1, 2009

Reducing water and electricity use can produce immediate savings for hospitals while recycling efforts pay off in the longrun

From Recycling and waste management programs to nontoxic paint and permeable pavement, hospitals across the country are implementing green initiatives to produce healthier environments for patients and staff, which they say saves not only energy, but money.

Among several provider facilities going green is Stony Brook University Hospital, in Stony Book, N.Y., which recently signed an agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The agreement outlines energy and water conservation, waste management and the use of environmentally friendly products, and the hospital is currently auditing areas to reduce energy consumption.

"A hospital is unique in that it's a structure that operates 24/7," says Andrew Bellina, EPA program coordinator, "So, there are opportunities for powering down in many areas of the hospital that do not impact the people that are working or the care of the patients."

In addition, the hospital is taking on a number of initiatives designed to reuse materials and reduce material waste. For example, staff has eliminated the blue, disposable wrapping used for sanitary operating tools, says Bellina. Tools now arrive in reusable containers.

However, he notes, the hospital has to evaluate recycling from a practical standpoint while also maintaining strict accreditation standards. Even so, recycling at the hospital increased by about 420 tons in 2007 and 2008, and it is expected to be higher this year.

"It significantly affects your carbon footprint when you recycle waste instead of just throwing it out, because you don't go through the actual mining, the treatment, the procurement, the manufacturing and the transportation," he says. "You're cutting all that out."

Water conservation is another important aspect of the agreement struck with the EPA. Bellina notes water supply costs recently increased 20% in New York City. He predicts water shortages in as many as 36 states in the next three to five years.

The hospital is looking to conserve water in two ways. First, captured storm water can be reused for non-contact functions, such as watering lawns and landscaping. Second, he says, it will be important to reduce demand for water. The hospital is monitoring water use with equipment that limits water flow and reduces total use.

Going green will definitely show a return on investment in the long run, and in most cases, produce immediate savings, Bellina says.

"Five years ago it [going green] would have cost you money, and the payback would be seven, 10 or 12 years, but now there are immediate cost savings. For example, recycling is an immediate cost saver," he says, "And you reap the economic benefits through the lifetime of the structure after that."

Determining effects on the quality of care is not as easy, he says, but he postulates that once the hospital's energy audits are complete and the air handling is upgraded to a more efficient mix of outdoor and indoor air, the quality of air will improve within the hospital. Better air means better health, especially for those who need respiratory care.

EAST CAROLINA HEART INSTITUTE

The structure has only been open for a year, but was built with energy efficiency in mind, according to Brian Floyd, executive director of the Heart Institute. It also contains recycled materials in the carpet as well as in bathroom, kitchen and ceiling tile.

Natural lighting is one feature that overlaps in the green movement and healthy hospital movement. An effort was made to light the Institute with large windows in patient rooms, physician work areas, waiting rooms, lobbies and cafes.

"Many studies show that people recover faster when they have access to sunlight, and we want to make people as comfortable as possible and acclimate them to the day and night cycles so they can heal faster," Floyd says.

It also requires less energy to light the facility during the day. With the help of sensors, artificial lighting turns on only when someone is in the room and dims when natural light levels are adequate.

The utility plant powering the Institute operates on energy efficient air conditioning chillers, high-efficiency electric motors and variable-speed pumping and air flow systems, according to Floyd.

The monthly electricity expenses at the Heart Institute have averaged 30 cents per square foot, or $142,000 per month, since opening in January 2009, according to James Ryals, Media Specialist for the Heart Institute and Pitt County Memorial Hospital. To compare, over the same period, monthly electricity expenses in the main hospital have averaged 45 cents per square foot, or $533,000 per month. The main hospital was built in 1977, and is twice as big as the Heart Institute, says Ryals.

"The per-square-foot figures are a better basis for comparison than the monthly totals," he says. "It's safe to say that, with the efficiency measures we've taken, our power expenses at the Heart Institute are roughly 33% lower than the main hospital."

Certain intangible cost savings, such as worker productivity, are harder to define, says Floyd, but he has noticed that retention of staff is higher and length of patient stays are shorter.