"Sustainability"  has been a buzzword in the hospital field for quite a while. But going green is about a lot more than just committing to some feel-good environmentalism, with no noticeable impact on your mission or bottom line.

Some, such as Memorial Hermann Health System in Houston, are saving tens of millions of dollars just by thoughtfully reducing energy consumption. Memorial Herman did everything from setting targets for energy reduction, to reprogramming air volume controls, implementing operating room airflow setbacks and "retrocommissioning" its HVAC system. All told, the 12-hospital system was able to save some $47 million from those improvements over the course of five years.

At the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, the savings they accumulated from sustainability efforts directly affected care delivery, as the academic medical center used those dollars to create 60 new beds, remodel five operating suites, build out one floor of a cancer institute and buy 7 acres of land.

A new report from the American Hospital Association, released last week, looks to sort through some of the fallacies about sustainability, and provide leaders with a clear path to bettering the environment while polishing their brand image and strengthening the bottom line.

"Our hope was to kind of cut through a lot of misinformation and hype that was out in the industry around green and sustainability and be able to give a clear guide on how you effectively implement sustainable practices," says Patrick Andrus, deputy executive director of the AHA’s American Society for Healthcare Engineering, which produced the report, along with the AHA-affiliated Health Research & Educational Trust.

"Environmental Sustainability in Hospitals: The Value of Efficiency," part of the AHA’s Hospitals in Pursuit of Excellence, spells out six steps that organizations, from giant health systems to stand-alone rurals, can take to "harness the strategic power of sustainability." They are: 

1. Make the commitment.

2. Create a culture and structure for supporting environmental sustainability.

3. Support and finance environmental sustainability.

4. Set goals and measure, report and evaluate change.

5. Celebrate and share successes.

6. And continue to assess and identify new opportunities.

The authors also spell out the different types of sustainability that hospitals might pursue, whether improving energy efficiency, reducing water consumption, purchasing supplies in a more sustainable fashion, cutting waste, or using an approach called "commissioning" to ensure that a new hospital functions as designed.

There’s a wealth of other resources in the report — including case studies, a sample hospital sustainability statement, benchmarking tools and charts of how to structure an environmental leadership council — so have a look.

Andrus tells me that those first two steps are key, as your hospital won’t be able to get the sustainability ball rolling without commitment from your leadership team, and efforts won’t last long without building the culture and structures to maintain sustainability.

"It isn’t a one-time project. One of the first steps is truly making that commitment and building that culture of sustainability, and that has to start from the top," Andrus says. "The executive team has to make the decision to make this a focus of the organization, to truly build sustainable results," he says. "And that’s a lot of what the guide will focus on, making sure that we achieve sustainability, but also that we can maintain it over a period of time."

What is your hospital doing to try and act as a better steward of the environment? Share your successes in the comment section below.