A Perfect Storm Brings Health Care, Government and Business Together for a More Sustainable DC

There was a “perfect storm” of activity in the nation’s capital last week, and if you weren’t tuned in closely, you might have missed it.

The Sustainable DC pledge awaits formal signatures from health care representatives signifying their commitment.

The Sustainable DC pledge awaits formal signatures from health care representatives signifying their commitment.

This perfect storm was not another Superstorm Sandy. In fact, one might argue that one of the aims of this perfect storm was to build resilience to any such storms in the future. This perfect storm brought together representatives from 21 different health care organizations and local government officials at Kaiser Permanente’s Center for Total Health pledging to make the District of Columbia “the most sustainable city in the United States.

So what makes this newsworthy? The health care sector is certainly no stranger to coming together under the umbrella of sustainability. Over the past 20 years, the sector has been leading its very own “green revolution,” with hospitals and health care systems of all sizes looking hard at their contributions to environmental waste and pollution and what they must do to flip the equation and support more environmentally sustainable health care approaches.

What makes the Sustainable DC effort special is its focus on a single urban community, on bringing together leaders from health care, government and business sectors in a particular place, concentrating their efforts across governance, jobs and the economy, equity and diversity with the goal that, “By 2032, the District will be the healthiest, greenest, most livable city in the nation by using sustainability solutions to address core challenges.” The Sustainable DC plan outlines specific goals, targets and actions to get there. And the plan makes it clear that health care organizations to be at the table to bring the mighty vision to fruition.

Hospitals in America contribute an estimated 8 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, generate more than 2 million tons of waste each year and draw upon natural resources like water in ways that often counteract efforts to support the health of individuals and communities. Recognizing this paradox, many health care leaders have joined efforts like the Healthier Hospitals Initiative, Practice Greenhealth and Health Care Without Harm to green their own health care systems.

Kathy Gerwig, chief environmental stewardship officer for Kaiser Permanente, chronicles this green movement in her recent book, Greening Health Care: How Hospitals Can Heal the Planet. In the book, she notes the reasoning behind why health care organizations would move to join forces with each other and government to move the needle on environmental health:

“In the final analysis, most health systems engage with their communities not because they are incented to do so by federal and state tax law, but because they are mission-driven organizations that care deeply about the health of their communities. They know that individuals’ health depends on the health of the communities in which they live, work, learn, and play, and that the health of those communities depends on a healthy environment—health-sustaining air, water, soil, and all natural resources. They strongly believe, on the basis of compelling evidence, that when they invest their dollars and their expertise in promoting healthy social and physical environments, they are benefiting their communities and contributing to the health of everyone.”

That mission-driven energy was palpable on October 23, 2014. The energy in the room was exciting, collegial and activated. There was much talk of the sustainability progress that is already converging in DC – from an extensive array of green roofs and LEED-certified buildings across DC to the build out of the Metropolitan Trail to provide safe, physical activity and active transportation options. And there was a clear conviction expressed by health care leaders who were gathered, as well as the Mayor’s office, that this coming together for a more sustainable DC was just setting the stage for a convergence of efforts that would echo progress even beyond DC limits.

We can only hope that, as DC leads the way in sustainability, so goes the rest of the country.

Representatives from DC area health care organizations gather with Mayor Vincent Gray at the Center for Total Health after the signing of the Sustainable DC pledge.

Representatives from DC area health care organizations gather with Mayor Vincent Gray at the Center for Total Health after the signing of the Sustainable DC pledge.

Kaiser Permanente applauds the Sustainable DC plan, and we are pleased to be among the pledge-signers and the hosts for this momentous step forward. We have pledged our support and look forward to working with fellow health care system leaders to advance the goals outlined in the plan.

Kaiser Permanente physician director for the Center for Total Health, Ted Eytan, along with Keith Montgomery, executive director for the Center, nicely set the stage for the day’s event in their welcome remarks. Ted offered his follow-up reflections in a blog post that summarized the vision for total health that everyone in the room intuitively if not concretely echoed that morning. He writes, the Sustainable DC plan is “not just about the environment, it’s about everything that goes into creating an ‘equitable, prosperous, society.’”

You can watch the full signing ceremony in this video.

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