The oceans are filling with plastic. Global temperatures are rising. Weather patterns are being dangerously disrupted. It’s all too much for individual physicians or practices to fight on their own.
But environmental sustainability—practical steps to meet energy needs, limit environmental damage, and save money—is easily achieved by physician practices, according to Todd L. Sack MD, a gastroenterologist in Jacksonville, Florida, and executive director of the My Green Doctor Foundation.
“Climate change is always the elephant in the room when we talk about [environmental] sustainability,” Dr. Sack said in a recent AMA STEPS Forward® webinar. But the real goal of physicians in practice is not for physicians to heal the world by themselves, but to take advantage of the simple, free resources that are available to help foster environmental sustainability, save money, and create an ongoing improvement program.
Dr. Sack cited a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency definition “meeting today’s needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs” and noted that the health care industry is responsible for 5% to 10% of all of America’s air pollutants and greenhouse gases. Conserving the resources that lead to that pollution provides “huge opportunities for physicians to save resources, save money, and improve patient health.”
The most immediately successful targets are simple, Dr. Sack said. There are easy-to-use resources to help physician practices:
- Save energy in buildings.
- Begin using environmentally wise products
- Reuse and recycle.
- Make healthy food choices, including local, sustainable, plant-based, and less red meat.
- Buy healthier chemicals
- Prescribe medications wisely.
- Try renewable energy.
In the first months, the steps an office takes are pretty simple, such as turning off unneeded appliances and lights, adjusting thermostats, and recycling. In later months, a practice might consider the foods brought in by vendors, sharing ideas with patients, and even using renewable energy.
Building an environmental sustainability program can including teaching patients how to make greener choices and reaching out to communities that have been made more vulnerable to the health impacts of climate change, Dr. Sack said.
Who is going to do the work in your organization? “Green teams” involving a few employees charged with tackling environmental issues are popular, but it’s not an approach that Dr. Sack recommends. “Green teams peter out,” he said. “Make environmental sustainability a core value of the practice and plan to include everyone in your “greening” discussions.
Dr. Sack recommended several free resources for physicians and practice managers, including My Green Doctor, an online service which provides an introductory three-minute video, a meeting-by-meeting guide, and other free tools.
To start, physicians can ask the practice manager reserve five minutes each month at the staff or business meeting to discuss environmental issues and to introduce topics from the meeting-by-meeting guide. The guide provides a complete script for each five-minute segment.
The script explains exactly what to say and do at each meeting. “There’s nothing for the office manager to study or prepare,” Dr. Sack explained. The organization also provides seven workbooks with practical action steps on various subjects. Practices make small changes each month that over time add up to real financial savings—one practice has been saving $1,400 per doctor per year.
It takes astute clinical judgment as well as a commitment to collaboration and solving challenging problems to succeed in practice settings that are often fluid, and the AMA offers the resources and support physicians need to both start and sustain success in practice.