The White House Honors Jeff Thompson, Champion of Change

Jeff Thompson
Janet Brown, HHI Director, Content & Outreach had a virtual sit-down with Jeff Thompson, MD, winner of the Champion of Change Award

Janet: Jeff, congratulations on receiving the White House Champion of Change Award! How does it feel to be recognized for your leadership in climate change?

Jeff: It is a great honor for Gundersen Health System and our many community partners.  To be recognized for our work in environmental stewardship. This isn’t something any one person or one healthcare organization can achieve alone. It takes a thoughtful Board focused on the future, as well as cooperative efforts with businesses and governments. In addition, the organization used to look in the mirror, accept responsibility for our contributions to environmental problems and make the changes necessary to ensure a better environment for future generations.

Janet: Given the myriad of priorities, why is climate change important to you as a leader?

Jeff: As a healthcare organization, it is our responsibility to not only take care of people when they get sick, but also help them stay well outside the walls of our hospitals and clinics. Part of that is caring for the health of the environment by decreasing pollution, using local renewable energy, reducing our energy use and being thoughtful on where we source our food, materials and equipment. If we do that, then we are truly taking care of the health of the communities we serve. In addition, we’ll be able to lower the cost of providing care because we’re containing our energy costs.

Janet: Does being a physician factor in to your concerns about climate change? Is there a special role for the healthcare industry in championing climate change?

Jeff:   As a physician, I’m certainly concerned about the long-term health of the population. The health of our environment definitely plays a role in the health of the people living in our community. There is absolutely a role for the healthcare industry in championing environmental stewardship. An organization dedicated to patients needs to lead by example. Healthcare organizations are heavy users of energy and resources. We need to get more efficient so we have a softer footprint on the environment and the economy. The bottom line is that we need to be leading by example and not just pointing fingers.

Janet: While this is a climate change award – the environmental work at Gundersen achieves goals set in numerous areas including community engagement.  Can you speak to some of the other positive outcomes associated with Gundersen’s commitment to environmental performance and healthier environments?

Jeff: There have been numerous positive outcomes. When people think of Gundersen now, they don’t just think of us in the traditional sense of providing high-quality healthcare to patients. People also think of our Envision program and how it is helping to improve the health and well-being of patients and our communities. It’s engaged both our staff and the communities we serve, and we’ve developed many strong relationships with our community partners. Another goal was to lower our energy costs because they were rising at a rate of $350,000 a year and those costs were being passed along to patients in the form of higher healthcare costs. We knew that needed to change, and in less than two years our efforts surrounding energy conservation led to a 25 percent improvement in our energy efficiency. Our one-time $2 million investment saves the organization more than $1 million every year in lower energy costs. There are many other positive outcomes from the program.

Janet:  What do you think the role is of health care leaders and environmental stewardship?

Jeff:  Leaders in healthcare organizations need to take an honest look at both the short-term good we create, but also our long-term impact on our communities…good or bad. When we identify the bad, we need to be willing to take the necessary steps to rapidly improve our environmental impact. It is the right thing to do for patients, staff and the communities we serve.

Janet: How do you think more leaders could become engaged around this topic and see its win win opportunities?

Jeff: Taking on environmental stewardship can be a daunting task. My advice to other leaders is to recognize that there are opportunities for you to not only impact the health of the environment in your community, inspire your staff and impact your bottom line. We started small, got some “wins” under our belt and expanded the program to what it is today. When you see the possibilities, it’s impossible for your staff not to get engaged. The Healthy Hospitals Initiative is a great way to start. It is free, clear and allows you to choose from many opportunities.

Janet: What are the biggest barriers to achieving Gundersen’s goal of energy independence in 2014?

Jeff:  What’s difficult now is that we’ve already addressed all of the low-hanging fruit in terms of energy conservation. Now we need to look for opportunities to find even more energy efficiency in our current processes…which are already pretty energy efficient. On the renewable energy side, we need to find projects that not only create green energy, but are also economically sustainable for the region in which we live. Sorting projects to find the best fit and financial opportunities is very important. With a little luck and a lot of work we will reach our goal of energy independence in 2014.

Janet: Looking back over the past five years did you ever think you would be getting national recognition from the White House?

Jeff: When the program really got momentum in 2008, we weren’t looking to get national recognition. Our goal was to get a better handle on our energy use and make a positive impact on our environment and our community. The fact that a program that got started in La Crosse, Wis., is now being recognized by the White House is truly amazing. It’s an honor.

Janet:  What is the key to success at Gundersen?

Jeff: Teamwork and a willingness of our board, leadership and staff to think beyond what we’ve “always done” to see the possibilities that exist. Also important was tying this work to both the mission (health of the community) and improved finances (financial well-being of community). It hasn’t always been easy and we’re learned a lot along the way, but we’re proud of what we’ve accomplished in a pretty short amount of time.

Janet: Is there anything you would like to say to your staff at Gundersen?

Jeff: Thank you for everything you’ve done to create a healthier environment for our patients and the communities we serve. It may be my name attached to the award, but it’s truly an award for the entire health system. Our program’s success never would have been possible without the leadership of our boards, the dedication or our Envision team and the hard work of our staff throughout the organization.

Janet:  On behalf of the Healthier Hospitals Initiative, congratulations on this recognition – you deserve it.  Your leadership clears the path for many others.  Your impact extends way beyond La Crosse, Wisconsin!

Jeff: Thank you Janet. It’s a true honor.