Dr. Susan L. Johnson, Ph.D., the Medical University of South Carolina’s director of health promotion and assistant professor of graduate studies in the College of Health Professions, was one of 23 people selected to serve in the six-month Sustainability Leadership Initiative held from October 2021 through April 2022.
Sponsored by Sustain SC in partnership with Furman University’s Shi Institute for Sustainable Communities, the exclusive leadership program represents diverse stakeholders from across the state and spanning the sectors of business, government and non-governmental organizations for the purpose of identifying pathways and implementing solutions that move us toward a sustainable future, according to Sustain SC President and CEO Ethel Bunch.
“The launch of our inaugural class for the Sustainability Leadership Initiative will be a game-changer for South Carolina as our state’s leaders find new ways to think about sustainability from a business and economic development perspective,” she said. “Dr. Susan Johnson, an inaugural fellow, has been a champion for sustainability initiatives as a founding member of Sustain SC, a board of directors member of Lowcountry Land Trust and a community volunteer for SC 7. Dr. Johnson has worked tirelessly to ensure that South Carolina’s natural resources are protected, providing clean air, clean water and quality of life for a healthy and prosperous state.”
The SLI consists of six sessions, and participants must attend all six to graduate in April as a certified sustainability leadership fellow. Each session features two days of classes: the first entails high-level sustainability thinking while the second delves into sustainability issues such as carbon neutrality.
“It is truly an honor, particularly that it is the inaugural class,” remarked Dr. Johnson. “I believe that completion of the sustainable leadership certification will allow me to expand my sphere of influence to help providers, clinicians, students and health care leaders understand their role in promoting green health and advance the growing health care sustainability movement and to create environmentally responsible, climate-smart health care.”
While Dr. Johnson has always been passionate about sustainability and conservation issues, this marks her first opportunity to help elevate the work across such a broad spectrum.
“What is so unique about this is that it brings leaders together from diverse sectors,” she noted.
Sustainability in health care and implications for quality of care
Dr. Johnson explained that sustainability in health care concerns the “impact of climate change on human health and the adverse health effects due to climate change,” which often disproportionately affect vulnerable populations such as low-income communities, communities of color, the elderly, children and those with underlying health conditions. These entail problems of flooding, extreme heat and pollution.
“We’re contributing to the problem of climate change as a sector,” stated Dr. Johnson of the health care industry, adding that the current approach isn’t viable. “We produce a huge amount of waste. There are a lot of issues that we need to address.”
Dr. Johnson, who has served on the city of Charleston Health and Wellness Committee, the Carolinas Heat Health Coalition and on the state committee of PowerPlant SC, which endeavors to plant 10 million trees in South Carolina over 10 years, recognizes the need and the opportunity to make sustainability improvements.
“Through these service activities, it’s become apparent that health care should be taking a leadership role in addressing these issues, and I believe that MUSC, as our state’s academic medical center, should take that lead in South Carolina,” she asserted.
From an economic standpoint, Dr. Johnson cited the statistic* that the health care industry could save up to $15 billion over the next 10 years by adopting more sustainable practices. She elaborated that individual hospitals could save millions of dollars through energy efficiency initiatives, waste reduction efforts and environmentally responsible purchasing.
Sustainability has implications both for quality of care and staff work environment. Most importantly, sustainable solutions must address community health and well-being, said Dr. Johnson.
“The greatest impact of adopting sustainable practices in health care is in addressing the economic, environmental and social determinants of health at the source: by creating healthy living and workspaces. These gains, in turn, would have a positive and measurable effect on the health of the local community, making sustainability-focused hospitals an even greater steward of population health.”
Dr. Johnson referenced several areas in health care where sustainability can be improved, including green building design, the supply chain, cleaning supplies and waste management. She explained that efforts must involve mitigating factors that expose people to risk. In Charleston, that means tackling issues related to heat and flooding.
SLI: Exploring the intersection of commerce and sustainability
SLI fellows work alongside Furman University professors from the Shi Institute, with each class teaching about a different facet of sustainability. Dr. Johnson said that nearly all the ideas and goals discussed in the initiative thus far – two sessions had been held as of this writing – impact health care.
SLI Director Dr. Courtney Quinn, Ph.D., a professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Furman, lauded Dr. Johnson’s contributions.
“Dr. Johnson has been an invaluable member of our inaugural SLI fellows’ cohort. She brings the unique lens of the intersectionality of the health of our natural environment with the health of human communities. Her kindness, patience and communication skills have been critical in creating a deeply connected group of SLI sustainability champions for South Carolina.”
Industry leaders and speakers have discussed sustainable growth topics such as transportation and the use of electric buses. Dr. Johnson noted this issue’s relevance to MUSC, which has partnered with CARTA on transitioning toward electric buses.
“We are framing this leadership experience around the intersection of commerce and sustainability and therefore are looking at strategies and practices through that lens,” she explained.
The fellows have examined different models of sustainability, including the concept of doughnut economics as a road map to prosperity. They have scrutinized this idea of creating an ecological safe space where humanity can thrive and fostering systems that are safe and just and address health disparities of equity and access.
“It’s our responsibility to address these issues,” proclaimed Dr. Johnson.
What she finds especially rewarding about being part of the inaugural class is that she will be helping develop the program’s vision for future fellows, including contributing to creating a statement of purpose for the initiative that will guide the work of subsequent SLI groups.
Additionally, they will recruit the next class and join in later sessions, building a statewide network of stakeholder leaders to engage in sustainability and climate change strategies and solutions.
“We need to be forward thinking,” said Dr. Johnson. “And advocate for policies and change that needs to happen.”
By Colin McCandless
*Additional source: Health Trust