NICH goes electric!

Group of smiling adults posing in a parking lot. They are standing in front of, in and on several vehicles and electric bikes. Vehicles are painted colorfully and doors say, "NICH. Novel Interventions in Children's Healthcare."

NICH Partners with PGE’s Drive Change Fund for Sustainable Change

The NICH (Novel Interventions in Children’s Healthcare) Program has become a known entity around the halls of OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital and throughout the Portland metro area and Central Oregon region. Now, NICH is known on the roads thanks to a generous grant from Portland General Electric’s (PGE) Drive Change Fund.

What is NICH?

Developed in 2011 by Drs. Michael Harris and Kim Spiro, NICH specializes in behavioral interventions for children who have complex or chronic health conditions that come from families with limited resources. NICH’s goal with every family is simple: to improve their child’s health. In order to do this, NICH observes barriers to care, problem-solves for the family, empowers families to continue these solutions and then supports families in doing this independently. The NICH team includes 14 interventionists who each serve a caseload of seven patients. Part of the “secret sauce” of NICH is that interventionists are available to patients and their families 24/7, and are able to meet families where they are, including their homes. This results in a lot of driving! When NICH learned about the Drive Change Fund grant, they leapt at the opportunity to get NICH cars that would not only help patients and their families, but would also be healthier for the environment.

What is the PGE Drive Change Fund?

PGE reports that transportation is the single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Oregon, and emissions are growing every year. Using clean energy to power electric cars, buses and trucks can reverse this trend. PGE strives to have affordable, clean electricity be the fuel of choice for transportation. The Drive Change Fund, which is funded via the Department of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ) Clean Fuels Program, is one more way to help promote that transition.

The Drive Change Fund is a flexible annual grant fund that supports a variety of electrification projects. The fund supports many programs in and around the Portland area, but is committed to efforts that support underserved communities.

NICH Pre-Electrification

Prior to submitting for the PGE grant, NICH interventionists were driving anywhere from 10,000 to 18,000 miles each year using their own personal (gas-powered) vehicles. The grant provided NICH with an exciting opportunity to reduce emissions, promote the use of sustainable electric technology, save money operationally and benefit NICH staff. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of our interventionists transported NICH patients and their family to medical appointments. This was a vital service since 30% of NICH patients and families report that they lack reliable and safe transportation. This resulted in a lot of mileage, and a lot of money spent on reimbursing interventionists for mileage ($60,000-90,000 annually). Since none of our interventionists had electric vehicles at the time, this also had a significant impact on our program’s carbon footprint; the anticipated emissions for interventionist’s personal cars was around 57,000 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). With electric vehicles, we anticipated that we could cut emissions in half. Additionally, we hoped this initiative would make for more equitable hiring practices. Prior to receiving the grant, NICH required that all interventionists have regular access to a reliable vehicle. Taking public transportation or biking can interfere with the primary job responsibilities of the Interventionist. This has historically been a barrier for some applicants who did not have the financial capacity to purchase a car by the time of hire. With NICH “company cars,” this barrier would be removed – and interventionists who have their own cars would not be expected to put so much wear and tear on their own cars.

Current State and Patient Impact

Two children and an adult in a park. Both children are posing with electric bikes. Thanks to the generosity of the Drive Change Fund, in 2019 NICH was awarded with approximately $180,000 in funding. This allowed NICH to purchase four electric vehicles, a hybrid van and four electric bikes. NICH’s electric fleets consists of three 2017 electric vehicles, one 2021 electric vehicle and one 2018 wheelchair accessible hybrid van. These vehicles are rotated among interventionists who have used them in the pandemic to bring needed supplies to families who were quarantining, and has allowed NICH interventionists to do masked, physically distanced visits outdoors with patients and families. Additionally, NICH has been rotating the electric bikes among NICH patients who use them for physical activity and/or as a method for transportation to and from work.

One recent example of just how important these cars have been for patient care comes from one of our Interventionists, Stefan Saing:

“The NICH Program purchased a generator for a family who does dialysis in the home and have been adversely affected by power outages this year while evacuating because of the wildfire and the 2021 winter storm. My personal vehicle was unable to transport the generator, but fortunately the electric vehicle has a spacious trunk. The irony is not lost on me that an electric vehicle (EV) carried a gas-powered generator to a family that couldn’t always secure reliable electricity! I also believe in the EV’s utility to reduce contributions to Portland’s urban heat island, especially during warmer days. My podcasts and music aren’t drowned out by the engine anymore either, which makes commuting to patients more enjoyable!”

The fleet rolled out in December of 2020, and to date has driven a cumulative 10,183 miles, resulting in an 80% decrease in pounds of CO2e, and has saved the NICH Program $21,700.

Future State

As COVID-19 case counts drop and guidelines loosen up, NICH interventionists are eager to get back to transporting patients to medical appointments. They have put the vehicles to good use so far. While the electric cars took some adjusting to, NICH staff hope that this model will serve as a successful example for other hospitals and healthcare systems that have cars on the road that could be shifted to more sustainable forms of technology.

The health of our planet and the health of our patients are directly related so investing in more sustainable technology is absolutely worthwhile.


Headshot of a smiling person wearing a blazer and a badge with flowers behind herCat Dennis, M.P.H.
Manager, NICH Program
OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital