(Reuters Health) – Compared to big corporations in other sectors of the economy, most healthcare organizations – even large ones – appear to be falling short when it comes to finding ways to protect the environment, a new study suggests.

Few of the 49 largest healthcare organizations had reported efforts toward sustainability, according to the study published in JAMA Network Open. Unlike large corporations in other sectors, many of those involved with healthcare didn’t appear to be concerned about issues such as pollution, waste generation and disposal, and water use.

“The take home message is that large healthcare organizations in the United States, which have become a major sector in American industry, are not doing a good job of putting sustainability forward,” study coauthor Dr. Phil Landrigan told Reuters Health in a phone interview.

“The healthcare industry represents 18 percent of the US economy and it is responsible for 10 percent of all carbon emissions. Despite that great magnitude, it’s not doing nearly as good a job as many Fortune 500 companies have in putting sustainability programs in place,” added Landrigan, who was dean for global health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City when he worked on the study.

Landrigan believes that there is a special onus upon healthcare companies to take care of the environment.

“Since healthcare organizations are in the overall business of promoting good health, they should be leading by example,” said Landrigan, who now directs the Global Public Health Program at Boston College. “They feel they have a noble mission, which they do, but we think they should make advances in sustainability as a secondary issue. We now know that when the environment is not healthy it affects people adversely. Air pollution causes asthma, for example. Toxic chemicals can cause cancer.”

Landrigan and coauthor Dr. Emily Senay at Mount Sinai studied healthcare companies included on lists such as the Fortune 500, the S&P 500 and Forbes 100 Largest Charities. To determine whether the organizations were striving to become more environmentally green, the researchers looked at official sustainability reports, scrutinized organization websites and searched with Google for environment-linked words.

They found a dearth of health organizations focused on sustainability. For example, in 2016, 389 of 500 Fortune 500 companies and 410 of 500 S&P 500 companies in other sectors had reported on their sustainability efforts, as compared four of eight healthcare companies listed in the Fortune 500 and one of three listed in the S&P 500.

Even looking at the bottom line, healthcare organizations should at least examine topics like energy use, Landrigan said, adding that corporations in other sectors have found ways to save money this way.

It makes sense for healthcare organizations to have sustainability programs, said Eileen McNeely, director of the Sustainability and Health Initiative for NetPositive Enterprise (SHINE) at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“They have such a big footprint and this is really essential to their mission,” McNeely explained in a phone interview. “But one of the major drivers of corporate sustainability programs is consumers/buyers. That’s why we developed SHINE – to try to bring health into sustainability.”

Other industries have gotten pushed into sustainability by consumers, noted Matthew Neidell, a professor in the department of health policy and management at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. For example, he said by phone, if you’re looking to buy an airline ticket and, say, American and Delta are priced the same, but Delta has shown concerns about sustainability, you might buy the Delta ticket because at the same price you can feel like you’re helping the environment.

“In healthcare, people don’t shop around the same way,” Neidell said.

SOURCE: bit.ly/2M51o4E JAMA Network Open, online August 3, 2018.


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