June 3, 2019

I recently attended and presented at the CleanMed conference, which gathers leaders in healthcare sustainability with the aim of collaborating to advance sustainability and health. The conference provides a platform to  exchange best practices and tips for enabling innovation and realizing the full potential of healthcare sustainability even when organizations are faced with the reality of having to do more with less resources.

Conversations at the conference all seemed to make the point that sustainability and improved health outcomes are inextricably linked. However, despite the fact that the public health sector has connected health and the human-made spaces in which we live, this robust understanding has not translated to significantly influence the built environment. From my perspective as an architect, in order to truly advance sustainability and its impact on health, we need to take these discussions beyond conferences, in some cases reframe them and begin implementing changes in our designs.

So let’s continue and advance the conversation with some of my key takeaways from CleanMed and a few actionable items that building professionals can be doing today to push healthcare sustainability forward and make a valuable contribution.

  1. There is a need to reframe the conversation surrounding sustainability and climate change. When people think about the impacts of climate change, they may first think of destroying the rainforest or polar bears becoming extinct. When discussing sustainability, they may first think of energy conservation and recycling. We need to raise the discussion and awareness of the impacts on personal health. When an issue becomes personal, and people can see how it will impact their daily life and overall health, the issue is more relatable and real and becomes cause for greater action. For example, if we can better showcase the impacts of climate change on our access to clean water and the potential negative outcomes on our health – we’d likely see a greater push to address water usage in our buildings and infrastructure.
  1. Benchmarking and metrics are critical to effective communication and action. In order to drive awareness, we first need to have credible data compiled to illustrate the negative impacts of inaction. We can then use those same figures to show improvements and encourage continued participation in programs and systems that aim to slow and minimize our impacts on the earth and ultimately on our health.
  1. Air pollution is the new lead. There was significant conversation on the impact air pollution is having on our children. The Social Vulnerability Index (SVI) was referenced as a tool that can be used to understand the impact on a local community.
  1. Resiliency is one of the foremost issues facing hospitals today. Climate change is responsible for more frequent and catastrophic weather events. Specifically related to healthcare design, resiliency is one of the foremost issues facing hospitals today. Hospitals are vital infrastructure and cannot stop operating during disasters, in fact, that’s often when they are most necessary. Hospitals which have been through major natural disasters – experienced power losses, floods, etc. – have had billions of dollars in losses from lost revenue, physical damage and lost research. . Immediate impacts from weather events as well as financial impacts render hospitals less sustainable operationally, which in turn affects the local community’s health.

What can designers do to help health systems and facility managers better address these issues?

To fully realize sustainability within healthcare, building professionals and health systems must consider health and wellness when making capital investment and operational decisions.  I hosted an interactive workshop on the Green Health Partnership’s LEED v4 BD+C Rating System’s Integrative Process for Health Promotion pilot credit. It’s a  structured approach that can guide the prioritization of design decisions based on both project- and community-specific health needs.

Rainy day design is important. Designers must provide resilient solutions. We design critical infrastructure considering risks and threats—climate change is one of those.  Hospital design should account for future, significant weather events in order to be more resilient.

Capture data. A barrier to sustainability is often the perception that it is expensive and cost-prohibitive. That’s not always the case; you can learn more about one of our projects that garnered cost-savings by implementing sustainability on a budget. Not all operational improvements require huge capital investments. Savings can be found in operational adjustments, scheduling adjustments and cultural behavioral changes. In other words, there are changes organizations can make now to reap the operational and financial benefits of sustainability. You can explore more in a previous blog about sustainability ROI.

The reality is that health systems are facing lean times. But the costs of not practicing sustainability are great—sustainability is about so much more than energy and water savings. More sustainable buildings are healthier buildings and support healthier communities. Isn’t that truly a health system’s ultimate goal?