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Highlights | Turning healthcare green

  • Practicing sustainability is essential to reducing the health threats posed by climate change and other environmental challenges.
  • UW Medicine strives to create structures that support sustainability throughout its hospitals and clinics.
  • Get involved by joining UW Sustainability initiatives and certifying your workspace as a green office or lab.

At UW Medicine, improving the health of the public means caring for patients but also ensuring our communities and environment are healthy, too.

Climate change is the biggest health threat we face. It results in injury and death from extreme weather events, the disruption of food systems, increases in food-, water- and vector-borne diseases, and mental health issues.

To help keep each other healthy and safe, we must take action now on individual and organizational levels to reduce carbon emissions and commit to sustainability.

Successes in sustainability

UW Medicine has already started taking steps to reduce its carbon footprint and promote sustainability.

UW Medicine is one of the founding members of the Washington Health Care Climate Alliance. UW Medicine signed the Health Care Climate Challenge, and both UW and UW Medicine signed the We Are Still In – Paris Climate Agreement, a commitment to cut U.S. carbon emissions in half by 2030 and be carbon neutral by 2050.

In addition, UW Medical Center and Harborview Medical Center have received numerous awards and recognitions for sustainability, with Harborview most recently receiving a 2021 Practice Greenhealth Environmental Excellence Award.

Across UW Medicine, these efforts to reduce, reuse and recycle have prevented paper waste, diverted waste and plastic sharps containers from ending up in landfills, resulted in the composting of landscaping material and food waste, and led to the recycling of thousands of gallons of water. The efforts have saved millions of dollars and contributed to a healthier environment.

UW Medicine’s goals for the future

While people across UW Medicine have been working together for years to promote environmental justice and sustainability — from departmental research projects to multidisciplinary teams implementing green healthcare practices — there is still much work to do.

Cynthia Dold, associate vice president for clinical operations, notes some of UW Medicine’s current sustainability goals include:

  • Creating facility-level leadership to support sustainability efforts.
  • Imparting the importance of sustainability to our employees from the start, by exploring opportunities like adding the organization’s commitment to the environment to job descriptions and including an overview of organizational sustainability goals in our new employee orientation.
  • Including questions about a sustainability and environmental stewardship program in the employee engagement/satisfaction survey.

Along with these efforts, UW Medicine hopes to promote broader involvement in our sustainability efforts and educate employees about the UW Sustainability Action Plan.

How to get involved

Due to challenges and workloads during the pandemic, it has been hard for many people to get involved in sustainability efforts in the last few years. However, Sean Schmidt, assistant director of Student Planning and Administration at UW Tacoma and longtime leader in UW and UW Medicine sustainability, is hopeful for the future.

“People have expressed interest before, especially in social and environmental justice issues in medicine. I think it’s time to start revving up our engines again, especially as we start to have more bandwidth as efforts to prevent and treat COVID-19 continue to evolve,” he says.

If you’re looking for ways to get involved, you can learn more about Sustainability and Medicine or Multidisciplinary Efforts for Sustainability in Healthcare, two UW Sustainability initiatives that connect healthcare academics and operations with sustainability opportunities and challenges.

Within your team, create structures that support environmental sustainability, such as making your office or lab greener. Keep the conversation going by including sustainability messaging in outreach materials as well as in new employee onboarding and orientation. And work to make small changes in your daily life, like reducing waste, saving energy and driving less.

Together, our actions can make a difference.

“My hope for UW and UW Medicine is to continue to step up and be leaders in sustainability,” Schmidt says. “We have all the dots in a very big and complex picture; we just need to connect them to continue to find innovative solutions.”

Photo credit: © Yaroslav Danylchenko / Stocksy United