Savvy Stewards

By Sean Moores on May 10, 2016

Ascension uses Practice Greenhealth’s award application for goal setting and conservation in its sustainability program.

Reads: 2008-2015 16.8% energy use reduction, $47.4million in cost avoidance, 875,000 tons in carbon dixode emissions

Courtesy of Ascension

ASCENSION, THE largest nonprofit health system in the United States, began tracking energy usage at its hospitals in 2007 and set a goal of reducing overall energy use by 5 percent. Through the implementation of an energy efficiency program, the system achieved its impressive goal. Within two years, Ascension began looking for new ways to reduce its environmental footprint.

By 2011, Ascension was a new member of Practice Greenhealth. With its support, along with the support of the U.S. Green Building Council and the Catholic Health Association of the United States, Ascension was able to start a comprehensive conservation and sustainability program, focusing on nine specific areas: energy and infrastructure, education and communication, energy efficiency, water conservation, waste management and reduction, food systems, sustainable site and transportation, chemical management and environmentally preferable purchasing.

“As the world’s largest Catholic health system, care for the environment was a logical offshoot of Ascension’s spiritual mission to provide quality health care to those most in need,” said Lois Sechrist, manager of the Ascension Environmental Stewardship Program. “We feel that care of the earth is fundamental to being a faith-based organization.”

Ascension remains a Practice Greenhealth member and uses submission questions from the Practice Greenhealth Environmental Excellence Awards Program as a mechanism for annual reporting for the Environmental Stewardship Program. In fact, this year, Ascension based all of its annual reporting on data collected for the Partner Recognition Award.

The Practice Greenhealth Environmental Excellence Awards Program honors companies that find imaginative and innovative ways to take their environmental programs to the next level. The Partner Recognition Award in particular is for health care facilities that have begun to work on environmental improvements, have achieved progress in several areas and have at least a 10 percent recycling rate for their total waste stream.

Ascension hospitals also work with several other Practice Greenhealth initiatives, including Greening the OR and Greening the Supply Chain and the Healthier Hospitals Challenges of Engaged Leadership, Healthier Foods, Leaner Energy, Less Waste, Safer Chemicals and Smarter Purchasing. The initiatives are aligned with the awards application questions and allow Ascension hospitals to implement specific programs, knowing that the methods employed and the data tracked will provide input for the annual awards cycle. Thus, when recycling and waste efforts increased at key sites, data comparisons to industry benchmarks offered perspective.

Vendor participation is key. As part of the integration of Ascension hospitals, Ascension began using systemwide vendors for a variety of services, including waste management, food and nutrition services and environmental services. Since these vendors now work with all Ascension hospitals, there is an opportunity to collect accurate data and work collaboratively to set goals. The reporting structure offers a convenient way to track metrics that Sechrist can then use during regular meetings with vendors to review the data and discuss how to move forward.

Zach Eichhorst in OR at St. Elizabeth Hospital

Zach Eichhorst, intern, participates in the Greening the Operating Room plastics recycling program at St. Elizabeth Hospital, Appleton, Wisconsin (Courtesy of Ascension).

Additional information for the Practice Greenhealth award application and Ascension annual reporting was collected from Ascension hospitals via an online survey. Ascension has 24 regional groups across the country called Health Ministries. The Ascension System green team includes at least one representative from each Health Ministry, as well as members from systemwide functions such as facilities, communications, finance and supply chain. Sechrist holds conference calls every month to discuss sustainability best practices and issues related to Practice Greenhealth, including data collection and the award application process. Representatives at the local level highlight successes and offer knowledge sharing for executing conservation efforts around the annual goals.

While Ascension hospitals are given some flexibility in how they implement the Environmental Stewardship Program, all hospitals must participate, and annual reporting is a requirement. But by aligning annual reporting with Practice Greenhealth award parameters, Ascension hospitals are more easily able to apply for awards.

Sechrist intends to use benchmarks in waste management, healthy food and other categories, using metrics such as those with Healthier Hospitals to bolster sustainable performance. Each year, Ascension’s Environmental Stewardship Program establishes four goals: one is on energy efficiency, the second on water conservation, the third in education and communication, and the fourth is left upon the Health Ministry to choose within other identified categories like leadership, safer chemicals or sustainable transportation that Practice Greenhealth outlines for its members.

One Ascension hospital, Borgess Medical Center in Kalamazoo, Michigan, has participated for many years in Practice Greenhealth’s Environmental Excellence Awards Program, achieving the Environmental Leadership Circle seven times. The staff at Borgess finds that the award process is a wonderful tool that allows the hospital to talk to individual departments about environmental stewardship, in addition to providing a beneficial “midyear check” on the hospital’s progress in Ascension’s Environmental Stewardship Program. Eric Buzzell of Borgess Medical Center relates the organization’s moral and ethical compass to Pope Francis’ encyclical; “We can build on our faith-based values and mission to embrace health care that leaves no one behind, including the earth.”

All hospitals that complete an award application receive a report from Practice Greenhealth, which compiles all award application information to share with its members. “This feedback helps a system as large as Ascension to evaluate its success in multiple areas,” said Sechrist.

“As the world’s largest Catholic health system, care for the environment was a logival offshoot of Ascension’s spiritual mission to provide quality health care to those most in need.”— Lois Sechrist, Manager, Ascension Environmental Stewardship Program

In 2015, Ascension provided nearly $2 billion in care for people living in poverty through community benefit programs. At the same time, Ascension associates aim to be good stewards of resources. The data collected through Ascension’s participation in Practice Greenhealth’s awards infrastructure helps push forward in goal setting and conservation that ultimately is felt by the patient and community.