Hospital Logistics: Ecology vs. Economy

Interview with D.Eng. Sebastian Wibbeling, Head of Health Care Logistics, Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics (IML)


Hospital logistics is a very broad field and encompasses many areas – ranging from surgical planning to patient transport but also including categories such as laboratory and waste disposal. But how does this broad spectrum fare in terms of sustainability?

Bild: Sebastian Wibbeling; Copyright: Fraunhofer IML

Sebastian Wibbeling of the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics (IML); © Fraunhofer IML spoke with Sebastian Wibbeling, Head of Health Care Logistics at Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics (IML), about the importance of sustainability in hospital logistics – the way it is today and how it will be in the future.

Dr. Wibbeling, before we address sustainable hospital logistics, I would generally like to know what aspects fall under hospital logistics?

Dr. Sebastian Wibbeling: Hospital logistics is a very broad field. Here at the Fraunhofer IML, we focus on all non-medical processes in a hospital. That means, aside from all of the processes in material flow and patient transport, it also includes all organizational and controlling processes. Those are processes such as surgical planning for instance or ward management like organizing work schedules for instance.

What differentiates "conventional" hospital logistics from sustainable logistics? Or to put it another way, what is a "Green Hospital Concept"?

Wibbeling: Sustainability consists of three aspects: the social, environmental and economic pillars. Our projects and solutions primarily focus on the economic perspective of sustainability. We are working on many projects for hospitals that specifically target the implementation of improvements, such as structuring operating rooms and wards for example. Many times, this needs to be viewed in combination with building measures. That’s when attention is paid to spaces and processes, that is to say, to logistics which does not take place in this way in the area of operations. This automatically also leads you to sociology and ecology matters that also play a role in building measures.

A Green Hospital is generally often associated with energy-efficient construction and energy-efficient building structures. That’s why they also make up most of the applications in the Green Hospital concept. 

Image: A hospital, with a blue sky above it and a green meadow in front of it; Copyright:

A hospital is a complex system. Its logistics constitutes a tremendous ecological, economical and social challenge; © jcpjr1111

What are the advantages of sustainability in hospitals and hospital logistics, respectively?

Wibbeling: Usually ecology is also accompanied by a more efficient utilization, though only with the benefit of hindsight. Even though construction costs tend to increase due to energy efficiency measures, energy costs are decreased at the same time, thanks to the lifetime of the building. Especially when it comes to construction matters, many arguments are often made in favor of sustainability.

When it comes to organization, more efficient processes are also more environmentally friendly, that is to say, this goes along with savings in the area of resources. These can be physical resources such as raw materials but also resources like staff or its workload.

That being said, only a few hospital CEOs respond to a pure green topic. Instead, the primary focus is always to improve the overall efficiency with these types of improvement projects, resulting in positive effects in the other areas of sustainability.

How can hospitals implement sustainable logistics?

Wibbeling: Sustainability is a trifecta of ecology, economy, and social factors. This pertains to the structure itself on the one hand, but notably also the processes inside of the hospital. Sustainable logistics, in this case, means to use resources efficiently and effectively, resulting in less waste and depletion. In doing so, energy savings are not only meant to be achieved through the building itself but also through its operation. The primary focus is on economic impact, which creates a wonderful combination of ecology and economy. 

Another issue are staff members, or rather easing their workload and reducing stress; heavy workloads, peak workloads as well as reducing physical stress are keywords in sustainable hospital logistics. All of these factors – building structure, processes, employees – can also be viewed as a trifecta.

Image: Many stacked coins, from which a small green plant is growing; Copyright:

Ideally ecology and economy walk hand in hand, but often the ecology is being subordinated to the economy; © vaeenma

How important is sustainability going to be in hospitals in the near or distant future in your opinion?

Wibbeling: At the moment, its significance is actually not quite as high. Or to put it another way, sustainability is presently not deemed particularly important by hospitals; especially environmental subjects have to yield to economic matters. This is more likely a question of how much social pressure is being exerted. Right now, hospitals are run based on economic factors since they have problems with their profitability. This obviously creates little room to maneuver to address environmental concerns. Having said that, I would imagine that sustainability will continue to become a focal point in the future due to the social parameters. At that point, arguments to go "green" based on technically economic subjects will no longer be enough, as is mostly the case right now.

Can a hospital actually be completely sustainable?

Wibbeling: A hospital cannot be completely sustainable because sustainability is always a process. There is no target state you can achieve. No matter what great or excellent status you have achieved, you can always continue on your path.

Developments keep progressing in terms of materials and technologies. Yet the developments are also progressing when it comes to people, work environment and requirements in the workplace. You will never be able to reach your goal in this regard. The actual concern is always how a hospital fares in relation to the market or other institutions.

The interview was conducted by Olga Wart and
translated from German by Elena O'Meara.