A New Healthcare Initiative Promises Leadership in Green Building

Bill Walsh | July 24, 2008 | Policies

Bob Eisenman

Bob Eisenman, PhD

Executive Director, GHSI

Launched in October, 2007, the Global Health and Safety Initiative “puts healthcare leaders at the center of a global movement to support healthy people in healthy communities on a healthy planet.” The Healthy Building Network participates in the GHSI, facilitating the Building Materials Subcommittee. In this issue, Bill Walsh interviews the GHSI’s new Executive Director Bob Eisenman, Ph.D., who brings to this position 35 years of leadership in health care, including working at Kaiser Permanente for the past 26, most recently as the Director of Public Policy.

BW: First, I would like to congratulate you and your staff on the Global Health and Safety Initiative’s (GHSI) website, which readers should not miss in order to get a clear and thorough introduction to the new organization and its vision. Why put health care institutions “at the center” of the “global movement” you describe, don’t you have enough to do already?

BE: We don’t look at it as something more to do. In fact, we are increasingly seeing how environmental changes, including exposures to toxic chemicals, have a direct impact on health and health care. We think health care institutions have both the interest and experience to contribute to initiatives that promote a healthy world.

In the past decade, a lot of work has been done to improve patient and worker safety in health care settings. The Global Health and Safety Initiative is linking these safety initiatives to the environmental health and safety movement and adding the way that health care organizations design, build and operate facilities, as well as the products used within those facilities, for a more integrated approach. We view this as a natural progression and believe that the synergy between the three – patient safety, worker safety and environmental health and sustainability – creates a great deal of power with which to positively transform healthcare, the communities we serve and ultimately the health of the planet.

BW: What is the relevance of the GHSI to the growing green building movement?

BE: Health care facilities and operations have a large ecological footprint that we are only beginning to understand and quantify. Presently health care is in the midst of a building explosion. Obviously the choices we make in the design and construction of new facilities will influence the impact that those buildings have on both the local and global environment. As health care institutions, we believe we can play an especially positive role with regard to establishing examples of how our choices can have long-term positive impacts on human health. Even existing facilities can play an important role in establishing positive examples in terms of energy use, operations and purchasing decision-making, and the health impacts of the materials we select for building, renovation and routine maintenance. What we are doing with the GHSI is creating a sector-wide partnership among some of the largest and most influential health care institutions in order to build a learning community and leverage the expertise and power of GHSI partners to accelerate the pace of the transformation we believe we can lead. I think this impact will be felt in the green building movement.

BW: Can you speak more about the synergies between design, construction and operations that you mentioned earlier?

BE: There is synergy on two levels. At the facility level, increasing awareness of the negative health effects of vinyl or PVC, for example, resulted in some systems phasing out the use of some vinyl medical devices, and then applying that standard to building materials as well. For example, using substitutes for vinyl flooring eliminates the need to wax and strip the wax with harsh chemicals and can reduce worker exposure as well as slips, trips and falls for both workers and patients. In that process we saw the positive impact our industry can have on the market for PVC-free materials. Now some systems are sponsoring farmers markets and serving organic foods thus creating markets for local and organic food.

There is also a powerful synergy between our institutional mission and our institutional purchasing power. That is why the GHSI has also brought together all of the major Group Purchasing Organizations (GPOs) used by our systems to participate in developing an environmentally preferred purchasing strategy, along with leading governmental and non-governmental organizations. We believe this will lead to lower costs for healthier and safer goods and products used in healthcare and/or the introduction of new products that meet our guidelines.

BW: How does the GHSI operate on a practical level?

BE: The Global Health and Safety Initiative brings together some of the most prominent health systems in the U.S. along with leading non-profits, Group Purchasing Organizations, universities, government organizations and others to share learning and develop tools and resources for significant improvements in patient, worker/workplace and environmental health and safety. We are helping to set the agenda for healthcare around what’s really important in building design and construction, purchasing safer and more environmentally friendly goods, materials and products, in operations, research and public policy. We see this as a social movement that brings together healthcare’s traditional concerns for patient and worker/workplace safety with the global environmental movement. Healthcare has an especially important role to play both to make itself safer and healthier as well as point towards the importance of these changes for the health of our communities and of the world. And we believe that together we can make a difference.