Summit Brings Forth Ideas on Sustainability and Environmental Impact

This art display, which was created by Mary Margaret with recycled household materials such as a wooden box and used matchbook covers, was featured in the recent Living Green Fair, an event designed to get people thinking about sustainability.

By Leland Kim on June 12, 2014

When Tracey Woodruff, PhD, MPH, attended graduate school at UC San Francisco in the late 1980s, the thought of incorporating sustainability efforts into research and patient care was considered “radical, crazy talk.”

Some 25 years later, climate change and its effects on the environment and human health have become widely acknowledged by the scientific and academic communities.

“Now when I talk to doctors about this, they say, ‘Yeah, this is an important issue,’” said Woodruff, professor at the UCSF Department of OB/GYN and Reproductive Sciences, and the director of the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment. “They’ve seen a change in the health of their patient population and they see a real problem in front of them.”

UCSF Medical Center CEO Mark Laret kicks off the Health and Sustainability Summit by talking about the importance of developing a culture of sustainabilty.

In an effort to better address concerns about humans’ impact on the environment and to communicate ongoing efforts to improve the world in which we live, the UCSF Office of Sustainability held a “Health and Sustainability Summit” at the UCSF Mission Bay campus.

Presentations from leading experts in climate change and health, environmental health, and health systems sustainability helped shape the discussion portion of the summit. Besides Woodruff, Linda Rudolph, MD, director of climate change and health at the Public Health Institute, and Jeffrey Thompson, MD, CEO of Gundersen Lutheran Health Systems, also delivered talks.

The focus of the summit was to answer the question: "What would it take for UCSF to become leaders in health and sustainability?"

Different Facets of Sustainability

Woodruff talked about reducing toxins, Rudolph covered climate change, and Thompson spoke about “greener” ways to run a hospital. All three speakers talked about why their topic is important to UCSF’s mission and presented recommendations for additional activities needed to position UCSF as a national leader in health and sustainability.

“As we continue to work more in those areas, we want to also focus at a higher level and harness our leadership and research resources on addressing health and sustainability to further support our mission of advancing health worldwide,” said Gail Lee, UCSF sustainability manager who organized the summit.

Audience member M. Alison Whitaker, RN, asks Jeffrey Thompson, MD, a question about sustainabilty efforts at Gundersen Lutheran Health Systems.

UCSF’s sustainability efforts to date have focused on campus and medical center operations like reducing the use of energy, water, and toxics. They have also focused in greener purchasing, green buildings, and sustainable food.  

“Once you develop a culture and a mindset for it, it can become infectious and we’re doing that at UCSF,” said Mark Laret, CEO of UCSF Medical Center and UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals. “As a public university, we have an obligation to stand up and take a position that this is the right thing to do. It’s the right thing to do for the environment, it’s a right thing to do as an example to our community, and it’s the right thing to do for the patients we serve.”

Good for the Bottom Line

The business case of sustainability has become stronger. UCSF is seeing more than $3 million in energy savings and additional efforts have been under way for a number of years across the campus and medica center. The importance of expanding sustainability across UCSF operations was well articulated in a campuswide engagement effort designed to help shape the future in a strategic and inclusive planning initiative known as UCSF 2.0. Some of those ideas are moving forward.

As a public university, we have an obligation to stand up and take a position that this is the right thing to do."

 Mark Laret, CEO of UCSF Medical Center

At Gundersen Lutheran Health Systems, sustainability has become part of their strategic plan, which aligns with their purpose of bringing health and well being to their patients and the community in which they serve, according to Thompson.

“So sustainability is part of the fabric, part of how we hire, part of the expectation of where the organization is going,” he said. “The fundamental piece is build a case that health care needs to move outside the traditional walls of sick people showing up at the hospital and clinics. We need to say we’re about the health and well being about the patients, their families and the community, 24/7, 365 days a year. We believe it is important to address this, and if we do it wisely, we can make money doing it.”

After the presentations, each speaker led a high-level brainstorming session with summit participants to identify which recommendations resonate the most with the group. The results of the effort could help devise a strategic plan toward the 2025 goal of UCSF as a national leader in health and sustainability.

“We received great engagement, support and recommendations from the summit speakers and attendees and are now consolidating them into three strategies with various tactics over the next 10 years to achieve our goal of becoming national leaders by 2025,” Lee said.

Reducing Toxins

Woodruff's recommendations to reduce toxins included suggesting UCSF integrates environment into its mission for advancing health worldwide and to prevent disease, and including a strategic plan to integrate environment health into health curriculum and training of health care professionals.

Tracey Woodruff speaks at the UCSF Sustainability Summit

Making Health Care Environment "Greener"

Thompson's recommendations for health care environments to be more “green” included proving the organization can engage its community beyond its walls, and setting goals higher and measuring more clearly beyond the “usual.”

Jeffrey Thompson speaks at the UCSF Sustainability Summit

Addressing Climate Change

Rudolph's recommendations on climate change included advocating policies and programs that effect health and climate change, and focus on integrating climate change and sustainability into curriculum of all UCSF schools.

Linda Rudolph speaks at the UCSF Sustainability Summit

Organizers hope the ideas generated at the summit can lead to a cultural shift in how organizations and its people think about environmental impact.

“We have to change the conversation with people so they empowered about certain things but also engaged in the overall structure so it’s not all placed on them to try to make all these decisions,” Woodruff said.

To learn more about UCSF's sustainabilty efforts, go to the UCSF Office of Sustainability's "Living Green" website.

Photos by Susan Merrell