The health care industry is failing to take its own pulse on sustainability

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The health care industry has a lot in common with environmental protection efforts: both seek to improve health and well-being, the one by treating individual patients, the other by ensuring the environmental systems that nurture humans and other life are intact.

The health care industry also has a lot in common with, well, industry: it uses lots of energy, and generates lots of waste. Health care is responsible for 10% of U.S. carbon emissions, and nearly 7,000 tons of hospital waste is created in the U.S. each day, including large amounts of single-use plastic.

Over the last decade or so, corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports have become increasingly common. The majority of large firms in the U.S. now produce these voluntary reports, which detail companies’ environmental and social impacts, including their efforts to reduce waste, pollution, and carbon emissions. But health care lags behind other sectors of the economy in measuring and reporting on sustainability efforts, according to an analysis published last month in JAMA Network Open.

Researchers assessed 49 large health care organizations to see what kind of sustainability reporting they do. The companies all appeared on either the Fortune 500, S&P 500, or lists of the largest charities, largest health care organizations, or largest state employers.

Just 6 of the 49 health care organizations, or 12%, published a CSR report, the researchers found. But across all industries, 78% of companies on the Fortune 500 and 82% of companies on the S&P 500 do so.

Just 1 of 8 Fortune 500 health care companies, 1 of 8 health care companies on the Forbes 100 Largest Charities list, and no S&P 500 health care companies provided information about their carbon emissions. In contrast, 52% of all Fortune 500 and 77% of all S&P 500 companies reported their carbon emissions to the Carbon Disclosure Project, a voluntary reporting system.

Some of the health care companies that didn’t file CSR reports did have sustainability information in a prominent place on their website or accessible through a Google search. But without a formal report, it’s hard to gauge how committed a company really is to sustainability, or how effective its efforts are likely to be, the researchers argue.

The JAMA Network Open paper is descriptive – it doesn’t include any statistical analysis. Still, it provides a snapshot of where the health care industry is with respect to sustainability reporting. It’s an important issue because health care is becoming such a large sector of the economy. The health care sector provides the largest number of jobs in the United States, and is projected to account for 1/5 of the country’s GDP by 2020.

Since pollution and greenhouse gas emissions have health impacts, more attention to sustainability would reduce the burden of disease and lower health care costs – thus aiding the health care sector’s mission, the researchers argue. It could also improve companies’ bottom lines, as other research has shown that applying best practices in energy and waste management would yield substantial return on investment in the health care industry.

But to accomplish that, health care companies will have to adopt CSR reports, carbon emissions accounting, and other forms of sustainability monitoring more widely. “It is a business maxim that ‘you can’t manage what you don’t measure’ and these readily available frameworks would help align the business of health care with its mission,” the researchers write.

Source: Senay E. and P.J. Landrigan “Assessment of Environmental Sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility Reporting by Large Health Care Organizations. JAMA Network Open. 2018.

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