Earth Day Bonanza: The Economics of an Eco-friendly Practice - Part I

As America's physicians continue to dig themselves out of the financial crisis, one truth is increasingly evident: saving money on energy and converting to more eco-friendly medical practices makes more sense now than ever before.

Is everybody going green? Is going green simply a matter of changing light bulbs? Economics aside, green healthcare is good for people and the planet.

The business case for investing in the short run is compelling, and the economics will clearly demonstrate that you will save money over the long run by going green in your practice. By supporting many of the global health initiatives, such as reducing greenhouse gases, shrinking your carbon footprint, and supporting health opportunities for you and your patients, you’ll be leading a massive shift toward a healthier healthcare system.

To pilot this change, you’ll need to focus on three areas: creating a green clinic or health center, advocating for a healthy environment, and practicing medicine sustainability.

Greening a clinic

A green building protects the immediate health of its occupants, it protects the health of the surrounding community, and it supports the health of the global community and its natural resources. The early returns are pretty compelling for constructing a green building.

The Packard Foundation (Building for Sustainability Report: Six Scenarios for the David and Lucile Packard Foundation) found that “a cost benefit analysis of green buildings in California determined that ‘a minimal upfront investment of 2% of construction costs typically yields life-cycle savings of over ten times the initial investment.’”

The report concluded that Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification only adds 1% to the usual costs of a building when environmental savings are taken into account. LEED certification was developed by the US Green Building Council (USGBC), which externally reviews and recognizes green buildings. If you are in the business of building health clinics or hospitals, the Green Guide for Healthcare is the place to start.

However, most physicians and healthcare professionals are not in the building industry. For most practitioners, greening the office is about reducing the environmental impact. This translates into monitoring environmental performance, conserving resources, and reducing waste. Tools and audits offered by the Teleosis Institute and Practice Greenhealth can help.

These non-profit educational organizations offer members useful tools and the practical knowledge required to evaluate all areas of environmental performance, including solid waste reduction, recycling, water conservation, energy conservation, pollution prevention, medical technology, and even healthy people. If proper staffing is committed to completing the audit, a clinic can complete each of the six self assessment audits in a few hours.

These assessments give your staff the knowledge necessary to develop a greening plan, which many times can consist of some easily completed activities that lead to the greatest environmental impact for the least amount of money.

Our recent greening efforts at a trio of smaller community clinics provide an example of savings. Life Long Medical Clinics in Berkeley, CA, saw annual savings of $17,000 by converting to Energy Star computers. NorthEast Medical Services in San Francisco, CA, reduced overhead by $12,000 per physician by switching to electronic medical records. Finally, Tiburcio Vasquez Medical Clinic in Hayward, CA, is saving more than 40% on energy bills by retrofitting to more efficient lights. With energy and lighting, many utility districts offer free audits and incentives to reduce energy consumption.

More importantly, creating an eco-friendly clinic is not just about saving money. Gary Cohen, co-executive director of Health Care Without Harm notes that the green hospital or clinic “situates itself in the broader ecology of its community and region and acts as a healing force.” A growing body of research shows that green hospitals improve patient outcomes and reduce length of stay for patients, as well as reduce missed workdays for employees.

Put it all together and green medical facilities serve as models for communities committed to promoting the health of people and the environment.

Click here for Part II

Joel Kreisberg is the founder and senior director of the Teleosis Institute, a program of Practice Greenhealth that is dedicated to reducing healthcare’s footprint while broadening its ecological vision.