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Dec 28, 2016 04:19PM

Great River's great work: Hospital system cares for patients and the planet

By Cindy Hadish
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Great River Medical Center in West Burlington, Iowa.
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Some of the pumps for the geothermal system at Great River Medical Center in West Burlington, Iowa.
Great River Medical Center in West Burlington, Iowa, makes the connection between healthy patients and employees, and a healthy workplace and community.

The hospital incorporates a number of environmental measures; it recently launched a program to compost food waste at a local farm with plans for the hospital's chef to teach at-risk teens how to grow and cook healthy foods.

"Our board, leaders and staff always try to look out for the good of the environment," said John Mercer, Great River Medical Center's facilities director. "We're also strongly linked to the community, so we work with them."

It's also housed in an Energy Star rated-building. Energy Star is a voluntary U.S. Environmental Protection Agency program designed to identify and promote energy-efficient products to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In 2015 alone, the program saved businesses, organizations and consumers $34 billion, while also avoiding greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to that of more than 63 million vehicles.

Great River uses three types of geothermal units to heat and cool its buildings, including its 213-bed hospital and the new 160-bed Klein Center, which offers long term and skilled care on the health system's campus.

"It's very efficient," Mercer says, of the geothermal systems. He cited Great River's energy consumption as the lowest in the Midwest among similarly sized hospitals using conventional heating and cooling systems, based on a consulting firm's annual surveys. It spends about one-third of the cost typical hospitals pay energy bills.

Mercer says hospital officials from throughout the United States as well as Japan, China, Russia and elsewhere who are interested in incorporating geothermal into their own facilities have visited Great River to learn how the system works. Reports from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that there is enough heat energy in the hard rock layer below the earth's surface to generate electricity to meet all of the country's power needs for 30,000 years.

The campus started with 18 miles of underground tubing for its geothermal systems, Mercer says. Now, with the addition of the Klein Center three years ago, the campus likely has close to 30 miles of the piping.

Besides the geothermal initiative, Great River Medical Center has long incorporated recycling into its daily operations. For example, 30 percent of the hospital's total waste in 2009 was recycled, which kept nearly 382,000 pounds of garbage out of the landfill. That same year, the surgical services department began recycling the blue sterile draping used to wrap instruments after they are sterilized, which added up to 7,800 pounds per year. The department also recycles plastic from surgical prep kits.

"We do a lot of recycling," says Kevin Dameron, Great River's manager of environmental services, who also named standard recyclables such as magazines, newspapers and other products in addition to the hospital-specific items.

Highlights of Great River's recycling and waste reduction efforts in 2013 include donating 75 mattresses, 15 recliners, nine patient beds and three baby cribs to missions in Romania. All of the items would otherwise have been destined for landfills.

That year, the health system also recycled nearly 416,000 pounds of waste, or 30.7 percent of the total waste it produced. Recycled items included batteries, cardboard, cooking oil, furniture, light bulbs, magazines, monitors, motor oil, newspapers, paper, plastic, tin cans and wood pallets.

In addition, Great River Health Fitness and outpatient rehabilitation gyms in the Wellness Plaza are equipped with water bottle refill stations, which have helped to divert more than 70,564 plastic bottles from area landfills since it opened in 2013.

Great River Medical Center employs 2,100 people and more than 120 physicians. Mercer says the hospital has a long-standing policy as part of its employee dress code that prohibits the use of scented perfumes, after shave, cologne, lotion and similar products to respect people who are sensitive to scents. The policy also applies to strong odors such as cigarette smoke, he adds.

According to Health Care Without Harm an international coalition that works to transform the health care sector without compromising patient safety or care, so that it becomes ecologically sustainable, according to its website exposure to fragrant chemicals can cause headaches; eye, nose and throat irritation; nausea; forgetfulness; loss of coordination; and other respiratory and/or neurotoxic symptoms.

In addition, many fragrance ingredients are respiratory irritants and sensitizers, which can trigger asthma attacks and aggravate sinus conditions, the group notes.

Dameron says a new initiative to compost kitchen food scraps is diverting 150 pounds of waste from the landfill every two days. The food waste is taken to a local farm for compost, he says, which benefits the farm and results in cost savings for the hospital because it does not have to pay the landfill fees for the waste.

Dameron says the initiative at the West Burlington urban farm goes beyond cost savings, though. The goal is to have at-risk teens learn how to grow vegetables there, and eventually, the hospital's chef will teach them how to prepare them, too.

"They'll be able to get their hands dirty and see the fruits of their labor," Dameron says.

Cindy Hadish writes about local foods, farmers markets and the environment at homegrowniowan.com

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