Going Public: Out of the Ivory Tower

IMG_4119Yesterday, I attended and was part of a timely all day workshop at the University of Washington Allen Library Research Commons, “Going Public: Sharing Research Beyond the Academy.” It was sponsored by the UW Libraries, College of the Environment, eScience Institute, and the Simpson Center for the Humanities/Public Scholarship program. Timely, of course, since science, climate change facts/efforts, the humanities (and arts), and even higher education in general are all under increasing attack in the United States.

The opening keynote speaker was Scott Montgomery, a geoscientist and lecturer in the UW Jackson School of International Studies and author of numerous books, including The Chicago Guide to Communicating Science (University of Chicago, 2003). For his talk, titled “A Story in 25 Images,” he practiced what he preaches by using PPT for showing a series of images to accompany a story (with a traditional narrative arc) of his journey as a communicator of science. Most of his images were abstract geology sorts of themes, but the ones that included human images portrayed only white men in suits. Yes, I was wearing my critical feminist academic bonnet, and yes, there were many women and persons of color in the audience. One young female attendee pointed out in the Q&A session that women within the academy face significant barriers, not just to entering science fields, but also to have non-traditional, public-facing and public-engaging scholarly work—barriers faced by men as well but to a lesser degree. And this is not only a gendered, but also a “minoritized” (her term and one that I like) issue.

The middle part of the day’s workshop consisted of panel discussions and break-out sessions focused on various issues of working with the media in all its varied forms—from TV and newspapers to podcasts, blogging, and other types of social media. I moderated a lunchtime round table discussion on academic freedom and public scholarship, two overlapping topics close to my heart. I didn’t share this in the session, but I have had to fight to defend my academic freedom in terms of this blog over its now seven year history. And public scholarship, such as what I do in my work on health and homelessness? It would seem that it is not deemed “nursing science,” whatever that term even means. But hopefully that is a cohort effect that will change for the better.

I was part of the final panel, “Navigating the Path from Research to Public Policy,” along with Dr. Simone Alin from UW Oceanography and NOAA; Washington State Senator Rueven Carlyle; Sally Clark, former Seattle City Councilmember and current Director, Regional and Community Relations, External Affairs at UW; and Tim Thomas, with the Urban@UW Homeless Initiative. The moderator’s question to the three of us panelists who are researchers was, “Can you tell us a little about how you’ve been involved in informing policy-making through your research.” Indeed, I can and I did, including a mention of my medical memoir, Catching Homelessness: A Nurse’s Story of Falling Through the Safety Net, which is research-informed and is written as a policy narrative—policy narrative being defined as ” a new genre of writing that explores health policy through the expression of personal experiences” by the editors of the Narrative Matters section of the health policy academic journal Health Affairs. Narrative Matters needs better inclusion from nurse writers, but that is another story for another day.

New Zealand Postcards: The Greening of Hospitals

1981Sustainable health care has the triple aim of maximizing benefits (and minimizing or mitigating costs) in environmental, economic, and social realms.

According to a 2012 Commonwealth Fund study “Can Sustainable Hospitals Bend the Health Care Cost Curve?” (S. Kaplan, et al.), U.S. health systems (especially hospitals) leave costly environmental footprints. In this report, the authors cite estimates that U.S. hospitals use 836 trillion British thermal units of energy and spend over $10 billion on energy annually–resulting in 8% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and 7% of our total carbon dioxide emissions. Hospitals also generate 6,600 tons of waste every day (resulting in more energy consumption, as well as methane gas production) and utilize large quantities of toxic chemicals. They identified model ‘greening the hospitals’ initiatives across the U.S from the Healthier Hospitals Initiative and Health Care Without Harm’s Practice Greenhealth program. Based on the costs/benefits of these model hospital programs, the Commonwealth Fund researchers estimate that such interventions could result in health care savings in excess of $5.4 billion over five years. Good for the economy and good for Mother Earth and good (health promoting) for patients, staff, and the community.

Debbie Wilson, a New Zealand nurse, doctoral candidate, and Sustainability Officer with the Manukau Health District in Auckland, tells the story of how she and a few other environmentally-conscious nurse colleagues  “rugby tackled the hospital CEO” in the hallway one day to present their concerns to him. “He rather liked it because he’s Welsh.” I assume she is referring to the rugby tackle health policy/advocacy approach and not to any inherent Welsh environmental enlightenment. But their rugby tackle worked and they now have a robust sustainability program underway. They began by working to raise awareness of the issues with hospital and clinic staff, which included measuring their baseline environmental footprint: (measurement + transparency= awareness). They’ve set their goal of a 20% footprint reduction by 2017 and are now in the process of writing a systems-wide sustainability policy. Nurses and health policy/health in all policies and advocacy at work!

I met Debbie Wilson last week at the University of Otago’s public health summer school where she was one of the key presenters. In talking with her afterwards, she told me about the model greening of hospitals initiative at Seattle Children’s Hospital. I admit that I didn’t know much about this model program that is quite literally in my own backyard.

Seattle Children’s Clean, Green Initiative was launched in 2007 and has already won Environmental Excellence national awards. Of note among their multiple and comprehensive greening the hospital programs are: 1) switching to environmentally (and health) friendly cleaning products; 2) providing monetary incentives for staff members to walk/bike/bus it to work; 3) piloting a switch to organic cotton hospital linens (including lab coats); and, 4) reducing food waste/increasing composting and recycling in their hospital kitchen (as well as increasing use of fresh, locally-sourced fruits and vegetables).