Delivering environmentally sustainable health care

By Amy Sarcevic
Friday, 27 January, 2023

Delivering environmentally sustainable health care

Australia’s healthcare system has one of the largest environmental footprints of any industry, generating 43,000 tonnes of waste per year and contributing an estimated 7% of total carbon emissions.

The Australian Medical Association recently called for health professionals to help tackle this issue. But what can practitioners do to make a meaningful difference; and how can they ensure health outcomes won’t be compromised?

Environment versus health?

Thankfully — over time and at a population level — mounting research indicates that environmental policies often lead to improved health outcomes.

Slashing emissions, for example, removes pollutants from the air and makes associated diseases less common. Investing in wellbeing to curb demand for health services means fewer people getting sick.

But how might environmentally friendly behaviours in clinical settings affect the immediate health needs of patients? Will an environmentally conscious procurement policy aimed at tackling waste leave clinics short of supplies? Will a bid to reduce personal protective equipment (PPE) or reuse equipment mean more hospital-acquired infections (HAI)?

Leading the way

In answering these questions, some are turning to the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) which, in recent years, has become world-known for its sustainable healthcare policies.

In 2018, following a decade of pioneering initiatives, the NHS reported an 18.5% reduction in carbon emissions and a 21% drop in water usage, despite a 27.5% increase in clinical activity.

Measures to combat waste were also highly effective. After just one year, its ‘Gloves Off’ initiative — which discouraged the unnecessary use of clinical gloves — slashed glove orders by 3.7 million pairs, saving the NHS over £90,000 and curbing its plastic consumption by 18 tonnes.

The initiative also improved health outcomes. By ensuring gloves were only used for isolated, critical functions — instead of blanket usage across all patient activity — the ‘Gloves Off’ initiative reduced the transmission of HAIs.

Despite its ambitious quest to eventually become net zero, the NHS has taken a “mindful” approach to sustainability and encourages others to do the same. A blanket ban on plastic straws, for example, would not be realistic, as they may be needed by people with dysphagia. Instead, practitioners could direct their procurement leads towards “single use plastic reduction pledges”, it suggests.

Prioritise digital alternatives

Seeing patients digitally, wherever possible, can also make a meaningful difference to emissions output, without compromising patient outcomes.

Research shows that telehealth can reduce a medical practice’s carbon footprint by 0.70–372 kg CO2e per consultation, largely because of the reduction in transport usage.

Telehealth also has a number of healthcare advantages, including reduced infection transmission, higher patient reach, and real-time assistance with emergencies or complex presentations.

No-shows are also less common in the digital realm, meaning fewer patients are leaving their symptoms unchecked. After adopting telehealth, one paediatric clinic saw no-shows drop from 36% percent to 7.9–18% per month.

In a similar vein, practitioners could adopt — or direct their procurement leads to — electronic health records. These drastically reduce paper waste and have been shown to standardise and improve care.

Influencing without authority

Practitioners who have no option to provide care via telehealth — and little influence over purchasing decisions — may feel powerless to make a meaningful change through their work.

However, the former Director of Emergency Medicine for Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney, Dr Robert Day, says that even junior-level staff can make a difference.

“Staff who express their interest in environmentally friendly alternatives can often inspire their managers to pursue different approaches. Royal North Shore recently updated the way it disposes of waste in clinical and non-clinical areas using different marked bins, an idea which came from a junior staff member. It now has more of its waste diverted from landfills.

“The focus of equipment procurers is often on reducing costs and maintaining best practice in infection prevention, so it might be that environmental consequences haven’t been a priority. Reminders from staff could re-direct their focus — so it is always worth a try.”

A challenge is the trade-off that sometimes exists between cost-saving and environmental sustainability; however, cost-saving does not always win, Day highlights.

“Generally the cost of single use disposable equipment is cheaper than the cost of sterilising reusable equipment and hospitals have gone down this path. If the environmental effects of the extra waste had to be taken into account it might lead to a switch in their approach.”

Those who are not successful in effecting change within their workplace could follow the NHS’s guidelines. It recommends taking greener transport to work, discussing climate change with colleagues or sharing sustainability information on social media to inspire change from others.

While individual measures may seem trivial, the NHS’s statistics are a reminder of how powerful they can be when multiplied throughout the healthcare workforce.

Image credit: Khirisutchalual

Related Articles

Opinion: It's time for Australia to introduce a sugary drinks tax

Sugary drinks cause weight gain and increase the risk of a range of diseases, including...

Collaboration key to improving adherence to physical activity guidelines

We all know that being physically active is important for our health, but getting people to...

Should chatbot psychologists be part of the health system?

This year, an announcement that chatbot psychologists could become part of Australia's...

  • All content Copyright © 2024 Westwick-Farrow Pty Ltd