Concrete steps toward a sustainable health system: OSU Wexner Medical Center’s journey

Q+A Aparna Dial, Senior Director for Sustainability and Strategic Services The Ohio State University and The Ohio State Wexner Medical Center

Healthcare’s physical footprint is enormous, and, in turn, its environmental impact. This means the industry has the power and responsibility to influence climate trajectory.

But realizing this and making it a reality are two different things. Aparna Dial, Senior Director for Sustainability and Strategic Services for The Ohio State University and the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center, spoke to Modern Healthcare Custom Media about how the institution is taking action on this global issue, affecting real change, and serving as a model for others through partnerships, purchasing power and policy.

What does your organization’s future state look like with regard to sustainability?

Our institution has ambitious resource stewardship goals, running the gamut from energy and water conservation to becoming a zero-waste institution and achieving carbon neutrality. Our intent is to minimize the environmental footprint from our day-to-day operations.

Who is accountable for tracking progress? How do you measure success?

It takes a village of incredible colleagues across the university and Wexner Medical Center to create institutional transformation. Our medical students successfully advocated for climate and health content within their curriculum and used the Planetary Health Scorecard to help us establish a baseline for future progress. Ohio State measures success in several ways, from progress made toward our goals, to seeing the health and wellbeing of our community increase. Annually, we provide a sustainability scorecard to our Board of Trustees that demonstrates the progress made on our sustainability goals.

How are existing assets being leveraged to offset the environmental impact of care delivery?

Wexner Medical Center formed a Greening the OR task force to research best practices and implement new procedures to improve efficiency and reduce waste. One goal was to lower the environmental impact of anesthesia gases, with a special focus on reducing the use of the anesthetic desflurane, which has 10 times the global warming potential of sevoflurane, a similar alternative. The task force achieved a 46% reduction of desflurane across the health system, realizing $300,000 in cost savings over a two-year period.

We also leveraged our purchasing power to positively impact our community and the environment. Since 2011, we’ve diverted 115 tons of single-use devices from the landfills through a reprocessed medical device program and saved $9 million. In fiscal year 2021, 16% of all food purchased by the medical center was sourced locally, thereby supporting local businesses and farmers. In fiscal year 2021, 75% of the medical center’s spending through its group purchasing organization, Vizient, had at least one environmental attribute, such as a product containing forest stewardship-certified wood or a plastic that’s recyclable.

What are some of the highlights of your green building efforts?

To align our physical environment with our institutional sustainability goals, The Ohio State University launched its Sustainable Design and Construction policy in February 2021. Stakeholders and subject matter experts from across the university were consulted in the development of this new policy and standards. All construction projects now incorporate more sustainability elements based on project type, project scope, jurisdiction and budget, and they require suppliers to be more transparent around sourcing, material content and the carbon footprint of materials. This is driving the sustainable design of our large expansion of healthcare space of nearly 3 million square feet. Another impressive example of the impact these standards have already had is the inpatient hospital currently under construction. This project is diverting 86 million pounds, or 39,000 tons of materials, which translates to 98% of the waste materials being recycled.

What role does telemedicine and remote work play in advancing system sustainability?

“Sustainability challenges such as climate change are global in nature. Global problems require global partners.”

Since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, the medical center has delivered 768,970 telehealth visits. For context, 800 telehealth appointments occurred between July 2019 and February 2020. Telehealth’s potential to increase service access for people facing transportation barriers is well-documented. The role of virtual care in reducing environmental impact is not as well known. We built a dashboard to estimate the sustainability benefit of our telehealth offerings and determined that patients avoided an estimated 50 million miles of travel and saved 2.2 million gallons of gas. We also prevented 25 tons of appointment-related waste and over 17,500 metric tons of carbon dioxide – or the equivalent of enough power for 2,500 homes’ energy use for a year.

How are you leveraging partnerships to promote and advance sustainability?

This pandemic, and sustainability challenges such as climate change, are global in nature. Global problems require global partners. This is why we participate in groups such as the Vizient Environmental Advisory Council, the Health Care Plastics Recycling Council, and the Health Care Climate Council. We leverage our partnerships in multiple ways, large and small, whether it is to use our collective purchasing power to change the competitive landscape for environmentally preferred products, influence policy decisions or recycle blue sterilization wrap. For us, this is about bringing partners across the value chain together to collaborate and align goals and drive lasting, significant and sustainable change to the healthcare sector.

What is your advice for other healthcare organizations interested in doing more to reduce their physical footprint on the environment?

For hospitals looking to engage in sustainability, peers are a great place to start. No matter where an institution is in its sustainability journey, the participants can learn from and collaborate with each other. Other resources include Practice Greenhealth, the American Society for Health Care Engineering and state hospital associations such as the Ohio Hospital Association.

Hear more expert insights at the ESG Summit, October 13-14 in Chicago. Join us there to learn about how leading organizations are reducing their environmental impact. Learn more

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