Eco-friendly healthcare – is there a better way?
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 sustainable and eco-friendly?
Health’s shocking carbon footprint
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.
The study, published in the Lancet Planetary Medical Journal, found in 2014–15, Australia spent $161·6 billion on healthcare 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 healthcare, hospitals are responsible for 44%, pharmaceuticals for 19%, capital expenditure 8%, community and public health 6% and general practice 4%.
An urge to take immediate action
The study 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 greenhouse emissions, which remain unacceptably high.
The DEA stressed its time to make urgent changes to reduce Australian healthcare’s carbon footprint, which involves striving for a better health system for all Australian’s that is more sustainable – financially, environmentally and socially.
More recently in March 2019, The Australian Medical Association (AMA) released a report highlighting how achieving environmental sustainability in healthcare is essential to improving the way Australia’s health system functions. It stated how enhancing environmental sustainability, through reducing carbon emissions, curtailing waste, and managing resources efficiently will deliver better outcomes for patients, and provide broader social and economic benefits.
The AMA also called on the Australian Government to take action to facilitate environmental sustainability in healthcare.
“Improving environmental sustainability in healthcare will reduce the environmental impact of the sector, ensure that the health system is better equipped to support the health of Australians into the future, and reduce the associated health impacts of poor environmental outcomes such as climate change,” the AMA stated.
Opportunities for health to be more eco-friendly
The AMA highlights a number of key areas for the health system to address in order to reduce waste and improve sustainable practices, including:
- Waste: From bio-waste, to disposable linen, to food waste, to paper and cardboard, waste management is significantly high in healthcare, and represents a significant cost to the sector. As an example, the AMA revealed that in 2017-18, public health facilities in Victoria alone produced 36,097 tonnes of waste, equivalent to 3.58kg per patient treated.
- Energy Use: According to the AMA, energy use in Australian healthcare facilities is increasing overall, primarily due to increases in the demand for services and the construction of new facilities. In NSW, energy use in the public health sector increased by 3.5 per cent between 2011/12 and 2013/14. Victoria has also seen a dramatic increase in energy use since 2005/06, along with increases in floor area and bed days.
- Models of care: The AMA highlights how inefficiencies such as duplications in care provided, unnecessary interventions, and unnecessary use of diagnostic tests and prescriptions all increase the environmental footprint of healthcare without adding value for the health of the patient. The AMA recommends healthcare providers turn to technological innovations such as e-health, live data sharing and teleconferencing to increase efficiency in healthcare systems, thereby alleviating environmental impacts.
- Preventive healthcare: Interestingly, the AMA found prioritising preventive healthcare is a foundational element of reducing healthcare’s environmental footprint. By encouraging and facilitating healthy behaviour and choices, preventive health campaigns and supporting policies can minimise the incidence and severity of chronic and infectious diseases, the AMA stated.
Useful resources for health professionals
The AMA recommends the following resources provide practical advice for doctors and health facilities on reducing their environmental footprint:
- Global Green and Healthy Hospitals: https://www.greenhospitals.net/
- Green Health Challenges: https://www.greenhospitals.net/about-green-health-challenges/
- Hospitals without Harm: https://noharm-global.org/
- Doctors for the Environment practical guide for doctors: https://www.dea.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/DEA-Sustainable-Hospitals—Practical-Assistance—05-18.pdf
- UK Sustainable Development Unit ‘How To’ Guides: https://www.sduhealth.org.uk/resources/practical-guides-and-briefings/how-to-guides.aspx