Preserving health and planet: The imperative of sustainable healthcare systems
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Preserving health and planet: The imperative of sustainable healthcare systems

Preserving health and planet: The imperative of sustainable healthcare systems

The interconnection between sustainability and climate change in the healthcare sector is crucial for safeguarding the future of both our planet and the human race

healthcare systems

Climate change and sustainability have become ubiquitous topics of discussion, and they hold significant implications for every sector, including healthcare. As the eagerly awaited COP 28 conference, scheduled to take place in the UAE from November 30 to December 12, 2023 approaches, the focus on climate change and the urgency to build sustainable models in all industries, particularly healthcare, has never been more critical.

The interconnection between sustainability and climate change in the healthcare sector is crucial for safeguarding the future of both our planet and the human race. The question arises: why is the sustainability of the healthcare sector so closely tied to climate change? Is it merely a fashionable slogan or a core issue that demands our attention?

To answer this question, we must examine the numerous disruptions in healthcare that have wreaked havoc on a global scale. Take, for example, the COVID-19 pandemic, which has shed light on the alarming environmental consequences of the sudden surge in disposable medical equipment. With the emphasis on personal protective equipment (PPE), billions of disposable items such as gloves, masks, and vials are ending up in landfills worldwide, posing a threat to our planet due to unsustainable waste management.

Healthcare operations have a significant ecological footprint, with a multitude of factors contributing to environmental degradation. According to a report by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the healthcare sector is responsible for a substantial portion of greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption, and waste generation. These adverse impacts can be attributed to various sources, including energy-intensive medical equipment, pharmaceutical waste, single-use plastics, and transportation-related emissions.

In the United States alone, approximately one pound of medical waste is generated per bed per day, highlighting the enormity of the problem. The medical waste management industry was valued at $12.8 billion in 2021 and is projected to reach $23.6bn by 2030. It is clear that healthcare systems must optimise resource usage, manage energy efficiently, implement smart electronic data systems, and leverage AI-powered telehealth consultations to reduce their carbon footprint and work towards achieving a net-zero carbon goal.

The proper management of pharmaceutical waste is also a crucial matter. Medications that are improperly disposed of can contaminate water sources and harm wildlife. To address this issue, healthcare facilities should implement stringent protocols for the safe disposal of expired or unused medications. Additionally, pharmaceutical companies should adopt sustainable packaging practices and invest in research and development to produce eco-friendly drugs with reduced environmental impact.

Healthcare organisations can make a significant impact by prioritising sustainable procurement practices. This involves sourcing products and services from environmentally responsible suppliers who adhere to ethical labour practices and produce sustainable materials.

By integrating sustainability criteria into the procurement process, healthcare systems can encourage manufacturers to adopt greener production methods and reduce the use of hazardous substances. Hospitals can also serve as models of sustainability by implementing initiatives such as solar panels for renewable energy, utilising battery-operated or hybrid ambulances, managing energy usage for air quality control in intensive care units, and striving for a paper-free environment.

Sustainability in healthcare requires a collective effort from all stakeholders, particularly healthcare professionals. Medical education programmes should incorporate sustainability into their curriculum, equipping future healthcare providers with the knowledge and skills needed to address environmental challenges. Continuing education and professional development opportunities can also help healthcare professionals stay updated on sustainable practices, enabling them to implement environmentally friendly strategies in their daily work.

In a nutshell, to build a sustainable future and a healthy planet for the future generations, the healthcare industry must undergo a profound transformation. This transformation involves adopting innovative practices and technologies that minimise waste, reduce energy consumption, and prioritise sustainable resource management. Implementing renewable energy systems, improving energy efficiency, and utilising green building design principles can significantly reduce the carbon footprint of healthcare facilities.

Additionally, transitioning to digital medical records and telemedicine can reduce the need for physical infrastructure, thereby curbing energy consumption and lowering transportation emissions.

As one of the leading nations in the Middle East committed to sustainability and resilience in the face of climate change, the UAE sets an example for the world. The country has demonstrated its dedication to environmental stewardship by stopping gas flaring as early as 1970.

Furthermore, the UAE has made significant strides in renewable energy, exemplified by the establishment of the world’s largest solar-powered desalination plant and the ambitious plans for the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum solar park. Feasibility studies for slow-speed wind turbine systems have also been completed. By declaring 2023 the Year of Sustainability, the UAE showcases its commitment to building climate resilience across all sectors, including healthcare.

Many developed western countries are celebrated today for their efforts in building climate-resilient healthcare systems through investments in renewable energy and emission reduction. The path to resilience involves minimising the use of fossil fuels, adopting sustainable transportation systems, enhancing farming and food security, restoring nature, and conserving rainforests. The UAE’s commitment to ticking all these boxes is commendable.

As COP28 approaches, it will be intriguing to witness a young desert nation leading by example in sustainable practices. The conference serves as a crucial platform for countries to assess the progress of climate action according to the Paris Agreement.

Member countries strive to strengthen the global response to climate change and limit the temperature rise to well below two degrees Celsius. With 194 countries united under the Paris agreement, the focus on building climate-resilient healthcare systems is paramount.

The urgent need for climate-resilient healthcare systems is undeniable. By adopting sustainable practices, optimising resource utilisation, and minimising environmental impact, healthcare systems can ensure their long-term survival and contribute to the well-being of their communities and humanity as a whole.

Alisha Moopen is the deputy managing director at Aster DM Healthcare

Read: Making healthcare systems resilient for a safer future

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