Jul 15, 2016

Sustainability in Healthcare: Cleaner Environment, Stronger Community

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Gundersen Health System has set the standard for health care sustainability with its Envision® environmental program. A 2015 top 50 American Hospital, as recognized by Healthgrades, Gundersen has developed a program model that demonstrates how to develop a portfolio of sustainability projects to help lower costs while improving your local community health. From an innovative recycling and waste management system, to a robust energy conservation program, to innovative partnerships for renewable energy projects, Gundersen has developed a model for organizations nationwide.

3M met with Mark Platt to learn more about Gundersen Health and its environmental strategy:

Q: Hi, Mark. Please tell us about your position and Gundersen Health System.

A: My position within the organization is Senior Vice President of Business Services. Gundersen Health System is a 125-year old integrated health care delivery system with its main campus located in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Gundersen is the largest employer in La Crosse – and it’s a significant part of our community. Gundersen also has four regional hospitals across northeast Iowa, southeast Minnesota and west central Wisconsin with 7,000 employees.

Q: How did Gundersen Health become interested in sustainability?

A: As a not-for-profit health care system, Gundersen’s mission has long been to improve the health and well being of our community – that’s what we work on every day. Our sustainability program naturally grew from that mission.

In 2008, we set a goal to be energy independent in 2014. We wanted to reduce pollution, improve the environment in our community and lower health care costs. And, we believed that we could do all three of those things.

Q: How did you get started? What steps did you take to reach your goal?

A: We conducted an energy audit in 2008 to review our consumption and the byproducts of that consumption. From there, we started with conservation on the energy side. We also evaluated opportunities to produce power with renewable energy resources because no matter how much effort is put towards conservation, an organization simply cannot reduce itself to zero.

One of our first early wins was a landfill conversion process at one of our largest clinics, in Onalaska, WI. We also have two wind sites, each with a pair of turbines in them. And, we have two dietary digesters that convert the byproducts of cows (manure) through a biological process to extract the methane into a generator to produce power.

As a result of these successful renewable energy and conservation efforts, Gundersen achieved its first day of energy independence in October 2014. Today, we are 54% less energy-intensive as we were in 2008, meaning that we use 54% less energy per square foot than we did then.

Q: You mentioned energy independence. What does that mean, exactly?

A: To us, energy independence means that we produce more power from renewable energy resources than we consume. With most of our renewable energy projects taking place off-campus – at nearby wind sites, for example – they’re still located within our region. We can benefit the local environment and reduce pollution while still reaping the economic benefits of these projects.

Sustainability in Healthcare: wind turbine farm

Gundersen Health System and Organic Valley collaborated on a two-turbine wind farm in Cashton, WI, that generates enough energy to power 1,000 homes each year.

Q: On that note, what resources were applied to make this happen? What are the numbers saying now?

A: In round numbers, our energy program is just under $40 million – and that investment is returning to us closer to $5 million per year. When you invest in your own energy infrastructure, you get a return on your investment, plus the added benefits of reducing pollution and improving local health.

Q: That sounds like a worthwhile investment. What advice would you give to other organizations – big or small – that may be considering a sustainability program to improve their energy situation?

I think that health care is uniquely positioned to make a difference and lead in the area of sustainability. If our mission really is about the health and well being of our community, then we can make a huge difference by deciding to be more responsible about how we use our energy and how we treat our local economy and environment. If you can actually lower energy and health care costs while you’re improving the health of your community, it’s a pretty big deal.

It seems like a no-brainer.

For us, it is a no-brainer. And, if you’re going to make the choices we made eight years today, the technology and the opportunities are much greater.

Q: That makes sense. So, how might an organization pursue a similar environmental strategy?

A: Conservation has especially huge opportunities for health care, and it’s a great place for organizations to start. In our first year committed to conservation efforts, we invested $2 million. Every year since the initial investment, we have recovered $1.2 million in savings. Investing in conservation has great financial benefits.

We also now send engineers across the country to help organizations better understand our mission, process and values. We help to incorporate environmental programs and sustainable health care products and processes to fit their goals.

Q: That’s great. What’s next for Gundersen?

A: We’re currently evaluating solar energy projects in our area, and we’re looking to do more on-site work with our waste management program. We’ve received the most press about energy, but waste management is another huge opportunity for healthcare. We’re working on a lot of things!

Q: That’s good to hear! You seem very passionate about the work. Do you have any closing statements or key ‘takeaway messages?’

A: We really do believe that health care is in the perfect position to lead on this issue. We can make a significant difference and be a catalyst for change in the health care landscape.

Sustainability in Healthcare

Left: Solar panels on the roof of Gundersen’s underground parking ramp produce electricity to help power the structure. Right: Solar panels on Gundersen’s Onalaska Renal Dialysis Center are part of a solar thermal water heating system that helps to extend the life of the hot water heater equipment, reduce energy consumption and support lowering health care costs.

Sustainability at 3M empowers individuals and communities throughout the world to address global challenges and to improve every life. Building on our long-standing leadership in environmental stewardship, 3M is privileged to feature like-minded leaders that exhibit success across a range of sustainability efforts. Learn about our Corporate Sustainability program and Global Environmental Goals, and discover ways to make a difference in your community with more Sustainability Stories.

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