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We are all acutely aware of how urgently we all need to make adjustments to minimize further damage to the environment. While many people have already begun adopting individual practices, some of the most significant damage is being done by businesses. Indeed, an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study found 23% of U.S. greenhouse emissions are from industrial sources. As such, all industries have a responsibility to prioritize sustainability.
Whenever the subject of industrial damage is broached, there is often a focus on the more obvious sectors. Yet, our healthcare industry plays a significant role in contributing to environmental problems. Not only do healthcare facilities need to make changes, but patients also need to be more mindful of how relationships with these services can be more sustainable.
It’s important to take a moment to review how healthcare sustainability can play a part in our global efforts.
The Healthcare Imperatives
Aside from the clear ethical reasons to take a more responsible approach to sustainability, there are some distinct healthcare industry imperatives that can help minimize negative environmental impact. These imperatives should emphasize leadership taking a multifaceted approach to sustainability that covers the running and construction of facilities, designing green diagnosis and treatment processes, as well as ensuring the positive day-to-day activities of workers. Within these aspects, there is a focus on establishing what procedures can be problematic and where adjustments can be made.
One of the primary ecological issues in healthcare today is the excessive generation of waste. This isn’t just concerning the usual environmental emissions, either. The sector works with chemicals, radioactive substances, plastics, heavy metals, and other elements that can be toxic to the environment. There is a responsibility to make certain the waste generated by the healthcare industry is not just disposed of correctly — this still has an impact on the environment — but also that the original use is reduced.
The healthcare industry’s first responsibility is to prioritize public health. Yet, unless the methods utilized to do this are sustainable, many healthcare industry actions will have the opposite effect. The ongoing damage to our environment is already having a significant impact on the physical and mental wellbeing of our population. This can be something as direct as the high percentage of pollutants the healthcare industry releases into the atmosphere or a contributory effect on climate anxiety and depression experienced among the public. In either case, when the industry fails to be sustainable, it also adds additional pressure on healthcare services.
One of the outstanding imperatives of the healthcare industry must be to reduce costs. The high price of services is one of the main contributing factors to our current healthcare crisis in the U.S., with many unable to get the attention they need because of the level of costs. Inefficient practices and the rising price of fuel and finite materials push up the expenditure which is then passed on to patients. It is both an ethical and business imperative to adopt sustainable methods that also have the effect of bringing down the cost of providing services.
When considering sustainable healthcare practices today it can often be unhelpful to look at the industry as a whole. It is a large marketplace with each business having its policies and priorities. As such, it’s worth looking at some of the practices individual facilities are and should be adopting.
Local Food for Patients
If you’re operating a facility with inpatient procedures, there will be a need to provide patients with meals. Unfortunately, utilizing large businesses to provide either the catering or the ingredients tends not to be a sustainable option. Big produce companies can put more pressure on the land they’re farming, not to mention the emissions and fuel expended during transportation. Facilities need to look at whether they can obtain produce from local, preferably organic agricultural businesses to support a more sustainable approach.
Understandably, there is a certain amount of reluctance to reuse some types of medical equipment. However, the disposal of single-use plastics like intravenous (IV) bags, oxygen tubing, and anesthetic masks are contributing to the accumulation of waste. Not to mention more resources get used in production. Wherever possible, facilities need to look at what devices can be safely reused on-premises. Alternatively, it’s worth reviewing local companies that reprocess undamaged devices so they can be used again. This also tends to be more cost-effective from a business point of view.
It would be unfair to say the entire responsibility for sustainability in healthcare is on facilities. Patients, as users of medical services, are having an impact on the environment too. As such, providers need to introduce their patients to methods to minimize their carbon footprint as well.
Possibly the most effective way for patients to contribute is by avoiding unnecessary physical appointments. Remote appointments can reduce the unnecessary use of resources that would otherwise be spent during in-person counterparts. Telehealth appointments are unlikely to see the use of cleaning chemicals following examinations, disposable appliances being used, and even prevent the use of fuel in traveling to the doctor’s office. However, patients aren’t always clear on how telehealth appointments work, so it’s important to gain users' trust by educating them on the practical processes used. Provide information on the full range of telehealth appointments available to them too — not just general practitioner appointments, but also specialist services like nutritionists and mental health professionals.
Healthcare facilities are significant contributors to environmental damage. As such, it’s important to understand where the important areas of concern are so you can better direct your efforts. Alongside some simple adjustments to your facility, it’s important to educate patients on how they can make a difference. When the industry, facilities, and patients collaborate, there is a chance to have an impact on our planet and the state of public health.