Public Health and Healthcare organizations have recently started a long but fruitful journey into to the world of sustainability. Discovery of the wonders of sustainability, such as energy efficiency, reduced waste and lean systems, has been slower in the health sector than some other industries. However, since The Lancet declared climate change “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century”, health organizations from small businesses to international NGOs have started to take notice.
Now, more than ever, experts are agreeing that it is imperative for the health sector to become more resilient and sustainable but how do we actually get there?
In a new and emerging field such as this there is no clear route but there are some signposts available as guidance. A good place to start are the four principles of sustainable healthcare. These are prevention of illness, patient empowerment, lean systems and low carbon alternatives. These fundamental criteria are essential to ensure health organizations are providing sustainable products or services. Most healthcare innovations will relate to at least one of these principles. To become sustainable, we need to move towards addressing all four.
There are three areas that are helpful to consider for achieving sustainable healthcare: clinical engagement, greenspace and sustainable procurement. Here are 3 examples to consider if you work in the health sector and want to benefit from the rewards of sustainability.
1) Clinical Engagement:
Clinical engagement, put simply, means making healthcare staff and service providers aware of the core concepts of sustainability. Clinical leadership can streamline and enhance care processes to save money and cut carbon. The effects of this can have a surprisingly vast impact. For example, switching to electronic referral and health record systems for patients in hospitals and clinics can reduce paper waste, save money by no longer having to procure paper and advance internal communication which improves patient experience. Triple win. Recycling water rejected from water purification systems for kidney care can save thousands of litres of water a day, resource costs and therefore make kidney care more resilient and cost-effective. The Green Ward Competition has been a pioneering example of clinical engagement.
2) Green Space:
Greenspace and Green Infrastructure have gained traction in recent years. Provision of gardens, parks, outdoor sports facilities and other such green spaces in urban areas has benefits for climate change mitigation and adaptation by absorbing carbon from the atmosphere as well as flood-risk alleviation. Greenspace is also good for mental and physical health by encouraging physical activity, preventing illness and illness recovery. These intersecting benefits make Greenspace perfect for the health sector. It can be used both as an instrument for public health in cities and in cohesion with healthcare around hospitals and clinics. The NHS forest is a prime example of using Greenspace alongside healthcare provision.
3) Sustainable Procurement
The health sector is notorious for the waste it generates, but this can be reduced by procuring of sustainable products. This refers to both the products themselves and the possibility to influence the production practices of the suppliers. Clinical waste is a toxic mix of anatomical, medicine, offensive and sharps waste. Offensive waste such as protective clothing, masks and gloves can be minimized by procuring biodegradable alternatives and researching options for multiple use. Medical instruments equally have opportunity to be minimized by becoming reused and sterilized, as the majority of medical instruments are single-use only. Medicine waste can be reduced by intervening further up the pipeline and monitoring patient use of medicine to ensure medicines are not being over-procured and overprescribed. In this way the whole supply chain of a hospital can be re-evaluated in a way that saves money by reducing procurement and waste management costs.
There is a long path ahead if we want to achieve a sustainable health system. The health sector of the future will be low carbon, preventative, green and lean. To start the journey, one of these three solutions will give you a good kick-start.