New Research Collaborative Study Shows that Going Green Saves Money

By Susan Kaplan, JD Research Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Health and Director of the Health Care Research Collaborative

There has long been a perception that “going green” costs more. Especially in the health care environment, where costs seem to be constantly escalating, sustainability may be perceived as “a luxury we can’t afford.”

Yet we at the Health Care Research Collaborative kept hearing examples where going green was saving money for health systems. Gundersen Lutheran Health System, for example, describes on its amazing “Envision” website how it improved energy efficiency by 25 percent, reducing environmental emissions linked with disease while saving more than $1 million a year on its electricity bills. Kaiser Permanente announced it had reduced harmful toxins while saving $25 million a year through its environmentally preferable purchasing program. Dignity Health reported that in 2011 its reprocessing system to reuse products kept 198,000 pounds of waste out of landfills and saved the system $5.6 million.

We wanted to test the idea that sustainability activities in health care that reduce pollution can save, rather than cost, money. With support from The Commonwealth Fund and The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, we collected data from hospitals implementing energy use reduction, waste reduction, and more efficient purchase of operating room supplies. We standardized metrics and extrapolated to project national savings. We concluded that these savings could exceed $5.4 billion over five years, and $15 billion over 10. And since we used conservative assumptions, actual savings may be even higher.

We think this research shows that, given the return on investment, all hospitals should adopt such greening programs. We also believe that research like this will be useful to hospital administrators making decisions about whether and how to implement green interventions, and to government policymakers who are considering policies or incentives to promote pollution-reducing, cost-saving greening activities.

There are many more aspects of greening health care that we would like to investigate – including the extent to which greening activities can reduce disease in the broader population, saving money for hospitals and also for society. It increasingly appears that “going green” not only benefits health and the environment, but saves money , which meets the Triple Aim of hospital quality improvements

Susan Kaplan directs the Health Care Research Collaborative, a project of Health Care Without Harm and the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health, where it is based.