How healthcare can reduce its shocking carbon footprint
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How healthcare can reduce its shocking carbon footprint

A recent report revealed Australia’s healthcare system contributes to a shocking 7% of the nation’s carbon footprint, so what can be done to make healthcare more energy efficient?

Health is not environmentally friendly

Australia’s healthcare system is contributing more than 7% of the nation’s carbon footprint, with hospitals and pharmaceutical companies forming the bulk of health-related emissions, an analysis led by the University of Sydney has found.

In January this year, the study, published in the Lancet Planetary Medical Journal, found in 2014–15, Australia spent $161·6 billion on health care that led to CO2e emissions of about 35 772 kilotonnes, representing 7% of the total CO2e emissions in Australia.

Of the 7% of CO2 emissions from Australia’s health care, hospitals are responsible for 44%, pharmaceuticals for 19%, capital expenditure 8%, community and public health 6% and general practice 4%.

This is the first time the carbon footprint stemming from healthcare has been determined for Australia. Similar analyses conducted overseas found healthcare contributed 3% of total emissions in England and 10% in the US.
“Our results suggest the need for carbon-efficient procedures, including greater public health measures, to lower the impact of health-care services on the environment,” the report concluded.

An urge to take immediate action

 The study has further prompted the climate lobby group Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA) to urge the federal government to fund states and territories to make hospitals more energy-efficient.

According to the DEA, climate change is predicted to be one of the greatest health threats of the 21st century and it is urgent for Australia to reduce its green house emissions, which remain unacceptably high.

“Every sector of the economy must be analysed to see how we can do better and the healthcare system needs to be part of the solution and not a large contributor to the problem,” Dr Forbes McGain, co-author and Doctors for the Environment Australia spokesperson, said.

The DEA stressed its time to make urgent changes to reduce Australian healthcare’s carbon footprint, which involve striving for a better health system for all Australian’s that is more sustainable – financially, environmentally and socially.

“If Australian and State Governments are serious about preventing the significant health, economic and environmental impacts of climate change then they need to ensure measures are taken within the health care sector to facilitate this, and to also prioritise preventative and primary healthcare to reduce hospital admissions,” Dr McGain added.

Key recommendations

Some areas hospitals can consider making changes to reduce their carbon footprint include:

  • Consider alternatives to desflurane and nitrous oxide which have high global warning potentials
  • Consider large-scale engineering and waste management changes to long-term energy and waste efficiency gains. Eg: Large energy (and financial- $15,000 p.a.) savings are possible as evidenced by work at Western Health with hospital steam sterilisers used more efficiently.
  • Hospitals can consider renewable energy supplies. As an example, Western Health’s Sunshine Hospital in the western suburbs of Melbourne has recently installed 315 kW of solar panels.

 Meanwhile for Doctors, UK research has suggested a focus on recycling and energy efficient lights and building usage, while watching paper usage is generally heralded as another key carbon minimiser.
But despite the idea of going paperless as touted as the way healthcare is going in the future, most medical centres are still littered with paper and files, while faxing is still rife. Recycle Nation, recommends to try to reduce paper by keeping communications and records digital.