By Addy Hatch, College of Nursing
SPOKANE, Wash. – Beth Schenk has always been interested in the natural world, and that didn’t change when she became a nurse.
She has worked for years to help hospitals and healthcare organizations recycle and become more environmentally aware, and has been nationally recognized for those efforts.
Now Schenk hosts a podcast, “Nurses for Healthy Environments.”
“Nurses are in pivotal positions for this work,” said Schenk, an adjunct faculty member at the WSU College of Nursing and leader of nursing research at Providence St. Joseph Health.
Sustainability programs require “so many decisions that involve clinical processes, and nurses understand those processes.”
She’s hosted the podcast for about a year, interviewing nurses who are working at the intersection of environment and healthcare. The podcast, which is available on iTunes, Stitcher and PlayerFM, is sponsored by the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments.
Last year Schenk was honored with an award from Health Care Without Harm, a campaign for environmentally responsible health care. In November, Schenk will be inducted as a fellow in the American Academy of Nursing, one of the profession’s highest honors.
She became interested in environmental sustainability in health care when she took her first nursing job in the 1980s.
“I was a big recycler personally, and I was horrified by the amount of waste in the hospital,” she said. “Over time I kept learning more and more not only about waste, but about toxic chemicals and the harmful impacts of some of our energy sources. It turns out that healthcare is very polluting.”
She developed a nursing environmental awareness tool (NEAT) through her doctoral research at WSU, which has been widely used. Now she and other researchers are working on a similar tool for climate health.
Schenk listed a few things nurses working in hospitals can do to help the environment:
- Energy: Don’t drive alone to work, and turn off lights and computers following the recommendations of your facilities director.
- Waste: Don’t take supplies into rooms that aren’t going to be used, recycle whenever possible, and push your organization to segregate waste properly. That latter step is complicated, she acknowledged, because healthcare has waste streams as varied as paper, pharmaceuticals, hazardous waste, and food waste.
- Hazardous chemicals: Employees should be aware of how to protect themselves and use personal protective equipment as it was intended.
The biggest challenge in addressing these issues is the complexity of healthcare, she said. But part of the nursing profession’s standards is to practice in an environmentally safe and healthy manner. That standard, said Schenk, “links all of this work to our professional obligations and commitment to society.”
- Addy Hatch, communication director, WSU College of Nursing, 509-324-7340, firstname.lastname@example.org