Interview | Sustainability is a priority for healthcare leadership

  • Europe

The BG Klinikum Unfallkrankenhaus in Berlin, Germany, has won The Healthcare Industry Future Award for the hospital’s climate strategy. Awarded by the ‘Club of Healthcare Industry’ (CDGW), a network for high-ranking decision-makers in the German healthcare industry, the theme of this year’s award was sustainability. The judging panel applauded BG Klinikum Unfallkrankenhaus for the long-term vision of their strategy.

The hospital’s CEO, Christian Dreissigacker, has long been a champion of sustainable healthcare. Under his leadership, three hospitals in the Berlin area have achieved the "Energy-saving Hospital" label, awarded by Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND). He is an active HCWH Europe board member and leads the sustainability department for the entire BG Kliniken group. We caught up with Christian to ask him about the hospital’s winning climate strategy and the role of healthcare management in driving sustainable healthcare.

What are the key elements of your healthcare climate strategy?

“Our climate strategy stood out to the judging panel because it is long-term and measurable. We are committed to annually measuring the hospital’s impact, including CO2 footprint, and producing an annual sustainability report, which we have based on the ten goals of the Global Green & Healthy Hospitals sustainability agenda.”

A crucial part of the climate strategy is to build a team. As CEO, Christian appointed an anaesthetic doctor as the hospital’s climate manager, which he considers one of the strategy’s biggest successes, and allocated 20% of their working time to spend on sustainability. With the executive team’s support, the climate manager has pulled together a multidisciplinary climate team to identify and address opportunities for sustainable healthcare. The team are empowered to make their own decisions on what issues to tackle and how to execute their chosen solutions. They have the full support of the executive management, who sign off on their proposals but give the team their independence and autonomy.

“There are five key reasons that sustainability should be a priority in the healthcare sector: patients, employees, leadership, economic savings, and politics.”

One solution the team produced was to reduce energy use for the ventilation systems. By working with the clinical and non-clinical staff, they identified the opportunity to turn off most ventilation units in operating suites after 18:00, significantly reducing emissions.

Why is sustainability a priority for healthcare?

“There are five key reasons that sustainability should be a priority in the healthcare sector: patient health, to motivate and attract employees, building a leadership reputation, the economic savings, and the changing political landscape.”

First and foremost, integrating sustainability into healthcare practice is better for patients’ health, safety, and comfort - this is the leading motivation for Christian, and many working on sustainability in the sector. We’ve seen first-hand how climate change harms our health and puts our healthcare institutions in increasing danger. Christian points to the extreme flooding experienced in Germany last year that made a huge impact on community health and challenged the delivery of care.

Christian Dreissigacker is a longstanding champion of sustainable healthcare in Germany.

As a society, we are increasingly aware of the climate crisis, and many of us are passionate and motivated to adapt our lifestyles to reduce our impact. Christian counts himself in that group but acknowledges that as an employer, demonstrating a real commitment to reducing carbon emissions is attractive to potential employees and helps sustain employee satisfaction. Taking action on sustainability also helps to reinforce the healthcare sector’s reputation as a leader.

Looking at the political landscape, Christian notes that changing and pending legislation will soon mandate measuring and reducing carbon emissions across most of the German healthcare sector and elsewhere in Europe. This will soon be a requirement for healthcare institutions, so getting ahead of the curve puts hospitals in a strong position if they’ve already started this work.

How much does it cost to make healthcare sustainable?

The fifth reason that sustainability is so vital for healthcare is economic. With rising energy prices and CO2 taxes either already in place or soon to be imposed - sustainability saves money.

A common misconception is that implementing new sustainability measures costs more - and Christian sees this as a common concern amongst public hospitals working with challenging budgets. Christian regularly speaks to CEOs and healthcare leaders at conferences and panels across Europe; his message is to look at the big picture and see this as a long-term investment - you will typically see cost savings over a longer period.

Even without the big picture, there are some easy wins that hospitals can take that demonstrate more immediate cost savings - for example, the most environmentally damaging harmful anaesthetic gas is also the most expensive. A simple switch will significantly reduce costs and emissions in a very short period. Christian also advises that public funding sources often exist for the more expensive solutions. His main piece of advice, however, is to just get started. You won’t be able to implement all the solutions in one go, but hospitals can start saving money and improving patient health through sustainability straight away, one solution at a time, as a part of a long-term strategy.

Christian’s final advice is to avoid assumptions and not be afraid to talk to your colleagues about these issues. Some colleagues at BG Klinikum Unfallkrankenhaus initially assumed that their CEO would not be interested in sustainability, but there are many passionate people across the healthcare sector. If you look for them, you can find sustainable healthcare champions in your clinical directors, nursing teams, purchasing department, or even your CEO!

You are not alone. Sustainable healthcare is a growing movement in Europe. Wherever you are on your journey, join us and unleash the power of our networks - inspire and be inspired and help us build a sustainable healthcare sector.