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Making the business case for sustainable healthcare


A image from neck down of an Indvidual sitting in a chair taking notes on a clipboard with a computer and a stethoscope on the desk.

By Kathryn Petrovic, MSN, RN, Director, Department of Standards and Survey Methods, The Joint Commission

Healthcare leaders know the facts. Nearly 10% of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States come from its healthcare sector. In addition, not everyone is equally at risk from the effects of climate change. The individuals least able to compensate for its effects are those already burdened with adverse social determinants of health, making decarbonization an imperative for improving healthcare equity and patient safety.

However, knowing that decarbonization is an imperative is one thing – and having the tools and the business case to make significant changes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and further sustainability is another.

The Joint Commission has heard from healthcare organizations that they feel like they don’t have the resources, whether that be financial, personnel, or otherwise, to make investments into sustainability.

What we’ve learned from speaking to healthcare organizations that are active in this work is that there is a business case for making our hospitals and healthcare systems more sustainable. In fact, there is a cost savings associated with many of the investments made into sustainability.

Cost Savings

For example, Providence Healthcare has reduced its carbon emissions by 12.4% and has saved about $11.5 million annually, just by using resources more efficiently. 

CommonSpirit Health installed LED lighting in 28 of its hospitals, reducing its energy usage. This simple change resulted in $10 million per year in savings.

More success stories, including from the Ohio Hospital Association, Parkland Health, and the American Hospital Association, are available on The Joint Commission’s Sustainable Healthcare webpage.

A study by the Commonwealth Fund projected $5.4 billion in savings if all U.S. hospitals reduced energy consumption and waste and gained efficiencies in operating room (OR) practices.

Small, relatively inexpensive changes can result in cost savings, if an organization can take action, and large health systems are not the only organizations that can see benefits from these types of changes.

Leveraging the Inflation Reduction Act

The Joint Commission has created an online resource center for healthcare leaders and staff to educate themselves on decarbonization and sustainability in healthcare now. Included in the Sustainable Healthcare Resource Center are overviews and guides on the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which offers billions of dollars in direct payments and tax credits for sustainability investments, making sustainability investments in reach for organizations that previously didn’t have these resources.

Small rural hospitals that might be concerned about having the needed resources to step up decarbonization efforts may have more to gain from these current government incentives that offer guaranteed loan financing and grant funding to cover half the costs.

Available in the resource center is the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity (OCCHE) Quickfinder for Leveraging the Inflation Reduction Act for the Health Sector is meant to help health stakeholders take advantage of the opportunities for resilience and emissions reduction in this historic legislation. The Quickfinder provides a background and overview of the IRA, as well as a summary of relevant IRA programs for the health sector, including: 

  • Tax incentives and direct pay provisions
  • Grants and incentives for lowering emissions
  • Grants and incentives for climate resilience

Combining the tax incentives and grants like those available under the IRA with the opportunity for massive cost savings in return means a more sustainable health sector is within reach.

The resource center also contains links to guidance from experts in the field, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the American Society for Health Care Engineering (ASHE), the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), and more, to help connect organizations with strategies and tools to get started on their sustainability journeys. It also features “Spotlights” of organizations who have made significant improvements to their carbon footprint, while saving money in the process.

Sustainability is a quality, safety, and equity issue. For long the response has been that healthcare organizations cannot afford to make these investments into more sustainable decisions, but the truth is, they can’t afford not to.

To support hospitals as they pursue more sustainable futures, The Joint Commission has developed a Sustainable Healthcare Certification. The certification will provide a framework to help organizations expand or continue their decarbonization efforts and to receive public recognition of their commitment and achievements in contributing to environmental sustainability.

Learn more about our commitment to Sustainable Healthcare.

Kathryn Petrovic, MSN, RN, is the Director of the Department of Standards and Survey Methods. In this role, she oversees the development and revision of the standards for all accreditation and certification programs. She is also responsible for establishing the survey process used to assess compliance with standards’ requirements.

Ms. Petrovic was previously a field director in the Department of Surveyor Management and Development for the Behavioral Health Care and Psychiatric Hospital programs at The Joint Commission where she provided direction, leadership and training to surveyors. She also served as senior associate director in The Joint Commission’s Standards Interpretation Group and as a surveyor for the Psychiatric Hospital and Behavioral Health programs.