A recent study revealed that sustainable initiatives such as recycling and reducing common wasteful practices can save hospitals a substantial amount of money. In fact, the industry as a whole could save $5.4 billion in five years and up to $15 billion in 10 years if it adopts sustainable practices.

The study considered several hospitals that recently went through various sustainable measures. Among the areas for potential savings: reduce medical waste through better segregation; reduce landfilled waste through recycling; more efficient purchase of operating room supplies; and the switch to reprocessed devices in the operating room over single-use devices.
Among the simple waste reduction efforts, the hospitals studied showed a range of 50 cents per patient per day in savings to more than $2.50 per patient per day. Changes in the operating room were as high as $57 per operation.

"We had seen some anecdotal evidence that was very suggestive and showed potentially some very significant [cost savings in a more sustainable model]," says Susan Kaplan, research assistant professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago's school of public health and the lead author of the report.

Many of the changes, promoted by Practice Greenhealth, Health Care Without Harm and the Healthier Hospital Initiative are very inexpensive to implement, Kaplan added.

"Many of them have virtually no upfront costs," she said. "To us, that was one of the most interesting findings."

Often hospital employees throw regular waste together with the regulated medical waste, often referred to as red bag waste. The cost of disposal of medical waste is much higher than regular waste, so adding unnecessary waste can skyrocket costs. It was determined that simply educating employees on what is proper medical waste and what can be disposed in the solid waste stream could lead to big savings.

Operating rooms are often a place where small sustainable practices can lead to big savings too, according to the study. Many operating rooms are fraught with one-time-use devices that are tossed after the surgery, but there are multi-use products available.

These survey findings are evidence that sustainability can improve healthcare quality, as well as the financial bottom line. It's just a matter of understanding it, accepting it and deciding which of the variety of strategies or tactics to employ.

Kaplan said for a sustainability program to be successful, there has to be a buy-in from management all the way down to employees.

"Any hospital can start implementing the program. The information on how to get started is out there," she said. "But the culture of commitment can really make a difference."