When health care providers pledge to “first do no harm,” they’re typically referring to patients. But more and more, that pledge is expanding to include the planet.

These days, many hospitals, doctors and dentists are not only offering the usual germ-free exam rooms, sage medical advice, and state-of-the-art technology that patients expect, but they’re also throwing in a few green benefits — think low-VOC carpeting, energy-efficient lighting, eco-cleaners, and organic bamboo chair cushions, to name a few.

Hospitals are among the biggest converts to the sustainable health care cause. Practice Greenhealth, a group dedicated to ensuring “sustainable, eco-friendly practices” in medicine, now boasts about 1,000 U.S. hospital members. “It’s really growing rapidly — there are more hospitals every day looking to find ways to become green,” says Eileen Secrest, a spokeswoman for Health Care Without Harm, an international coalition that founded Practice Greenhealth two years ago. “One reason is there are cost savings to becoming green. But it’s also part of the culture of hospitals that they want to provide health care — not contribute to disease.”

Across the country, hospitals are taking this green-healing mission to heart, focusing on everything from installing solar panels to serving organic food to opting for alternatives to PVC gloves and IV bags (responsible for dioxin pollution and human exposure to phthalates).

Bon Secours Health System, which runs hospitals in New York, Virginia, South Carolina, Maryland and other states, began its green makeover two years ago. Priority number one, according to Sister Rosemary Moynihan, director of ecology and global ministries, was to recycle more of the system’s mountains of waste. So far, all hospitals are up to 25 percent or more.

The health system is also exploring ways to serve more local and organic food and will soon launch a campaign to conserve more energy and use cleaner forms (wind, solar, etc.).

Interestingly, says Moynihan, these eco-efforts have also unleashed a surge of employee-led green initiatives. “Once people begin to realize this is for real — once you put teeth in and they see it’s really happening — they buy in and start coming up with new ideas,” she says.

While hospitals currently lead the sustainability race, more individual dentists and doctors are beginning to gain some green momentum. (Practice Greenhealth lists six dentists and 17 doctors as members).

Namrata Patel of Green Dentistry in San Francisco credits her Jain background for inspiring her new eco-practice. Jainism is an ancient Indian religion that encourages nonviolence toward all life and nonmaterialism.

“I grew up using almost everything we had,” she says. “It’s not just about recycling, but about being conscious of something before you use it. I knew I wanted to make a difference, but didn’t know if people would be interested in the concept of a green dentist.”

Apparently, they were; her LEED-certified office has “worked out really well,” she says. Among its many green touches: architectural panels constructed of reclaimed vinyl and eco-resins that are soundproofed with insulation made of recycled organic denim jeans; energy-efficient mercury-free lighting; cabinet laminates made of PVC-free Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified wood; and furniture constructed with eco-resins, bamboo and reclaimed vinyl.

Eco-friendly patient-safety measures include a water filtration system that allows for environmentally safe disposal of old mercury fillings; digital tooth imaging technology that cuts radiation exposure by 90 percent over conventional X-rays; and a steam-based instrument sterilization system that doesn’t require toxic chemicals and cuts water use.

“I wanted us to take a stand and go forward with it,” Patel says. “It’s about the bigger picture.”

Dr. Jennifer Ashton, owner of a 2-year-old green medical practice called Hygeia Gynecology in Englewood, N.J., agrees: “I felt it was my responsibility to not only heal individuals but also to help heal in a global sense.”

Everything inside her office is 99 percent “green and nontoxic.” Exam room floors are made of Marmoleum, an eco-friendly linoleum; bathrooms are outfitted with recycled glass tiles and cork flooring; furniture is constructed from sustainable or recycled materials; and the office is almost entirely paperless (think electronic medical records, e-faxes, and computers in the waiting room for tree-free leisure reading).

Ashton says she’s been surprised by how deeply her eco-health approach resonates with patients and staff alike. “I think people are conditioned to associate medical offices and hospitals with chemicals and sickness,” she notes. “What we’ve done is really the antithesis. Patients now associate health care with wellness and a lack of chemicals when they come to see me. They love it. I’ve also found for my staff and myself—we feel healthier, we feel better, and we feel happier being able to conduct a business without putting a significant strain on the environment.”

For more green doctors and dentists, check out the Teleosis Institute’s member directory. Search for green dentists by ZIP code, city or state via the Eco-Dentistry Association.   

MNN homepage photo: arakonyunus/iStockphoto

Health care providers work to heal the planet
Hospitals and offices for doctors and dentists tend to the planet's health with eco-friendly supplies and practices.