Springtime marks the return of outdoor activities, and as we enjoy picnics on green grass and evening walks amidst budding trees, we are reminded about the importance of keeping our planet healthy. It’s the time of year when we think a little harder about recycling our newspapers, turning off our lights and dusting off that reusable water bottle. But what if being “green” was more meaningful to us as healthcare professionals and as people? What if it wasn’t just about being green, it was about being healthy?
“As it relates to our health, our zip code may be more important than our genetic code…” - James S. Marks, MD, MPH, senior vice president, director of the Health Group, RWJF
This quote simply and powerfully captures the connection between our health and our environment. Our health is determined by three things: a set of genes, a set of choices and a set of environments, economic, social, built, natural, etc. The implications of this equation are enormous for insurers and the healthcare industry. At Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, we believe the health of the homes we live in, the schools and workplaces where we spend our days, and our air, water, food and land, are critical in our efforts to prevent people from getting sick. Issues such as cleaner streets and public spaces, access to gardens and parks, cleaner air and water, and affordable, nutritious food are linked to the health of our members and the future livelihoods of our communities.
The connection between the health of our environments and our own health should serve as a direct call to action. But these are often complex issues to tackle. It’s much easier to talk about the availability of healthy food but less easy to talk about the public health consequences of how that food was produced. The number of elderly and the number of brutally hot days in many of our cities will double in the next 25 years; and Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy devastated the infrastructure of each region’s healthcare systems. The healthcare industry has an important stake in environmental issues as they pertain to the health and wellbeing of the population.
Beyond the health benefits of less pollution, fewer chemicals, and cleaner communities, actions that reduce our own environmental impact at work and at home can also create significant value through cost savings and operational improvements. At BCBSMA, we‘re benefiting from capital improvements that have made our offices healthier while significantly reducing energy use. In 2013, we recycled over 2,000 tons of materials, reduced our electricity usage by over eight percent, and saved 6,500 trees by reducing our office paper use. Collectively, hundreds of millions of dollars could be saved and countless hours of wasted time avoided through making our buildings and offices more energy efficient, eliminating printing and postage through streamlining communications, and embracing a more mobile and agile workforce.
Beyond our four walls, the Blues® have an extraordinary opportunity to empower our 100M members to improve their own environments, their health and in turn, the health of our industry. At Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, we’re exploring ways of integrating environmental health into prevention and wellness activities. Well-being involves more than physical health. We are supporting programs that promote the benefits of being in nature to combat the numerous ailments caused by school and workplace stress. We all want our members to eat healthier. So we ourselves are walking the talk and establishing food program guidelines that will serve as a model of healthy eating and sustainable food.
Next time you think about being “green,” remember it’s not just about improving recycling rates, printing double sided, and turning off your computer at night. As we seek to transition from a system that treats illness to one that promotes wellness, it’s important to recognize how our environments affect our well-being.
Let’s not just pledge to be greener, let’s pledge to be healthier.
Kyle Cahill leads environmental sustainability at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts