Importance of Sustainability in Healthcare

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The healthcare industry is one of the most alarming contributors of greenhouse gas emissions. And, the importance of sustainability in healthcare has become crucial. 

What’s essential is managing the effects of the healthcare industry on the environment, along with acknowledging the increase in costs. 

The population of patients on the older side is increasing every year, which means the number of chronic diseases has increased. 

With everything, there is an increase in demand for access to care. Global healthcare demands have skyrocketed resource consumption.

While adapting to these changes, embodying a sustainable strategy makes it possible for the healthcare industry to become more affordable and responsible.

This piece explores the urgency and importance of sustainability in healthcare industry. 

We will examine the industry’s greenhouse emissions, waste generation, and other environmental impacts.

In addition, we will also talk about the financial benefits and clinical advantages of sustainable practices. 

By making changes in how they run buildings, how they treat patients, and how they use supplies, hospitals can become more eco-friendly. This can help fight climate change and protect our planet.

The Healthcare Industry’s Environmental Footprint

The very practices meant to save lives and improve health are contributing to environmental degradation that threatens public well-being. 

Healthcare’s climate impacts stem from numerous sources across the care continuum, as follows:

Greenhouse gas emissions: A 2019 study estimated healthcare activities cause 4.4% of global net emissions from sources like hospitals, pharma facilities, and transportation of staff, patients, and supplies.  

Waste generation: Medical facilities produce millions of tons of waste each year, including hazardous materials and plastics that pollute air and water. Pharmaceutical waste is also a major emerging concern.

Water usage: Heating, cooling, laundry, sterilization — healthcare’s water demands are immense, burdening vital resources in some regions.  

These environmental impacts jeopardize health gains by degrading air quality, altering disease patterns, threatening food and water security, and exacerbating extreme weather events. 

Transitioning to sustainable healthcare models is key for healthcare to reduce its own climate footprint and prepare for mounting health challenges.

Financial Benefits & Importance of Sustainability in Healthcare

In addition to environmental advantages, embedding sustainability across healthcare operations offers compelling economic incentives. 

Initiatives like energy efficiency retrofits, renewable power procurement, and sustainable supply chain practices translate into major cost savings over time by reducing pollution control fees, energy bills, hazardous waste disposal outlays, and resource consumption expenses.

More broadly, the financial implications of inaction on climate change for healthcare systems could be catastrophic. 

As an example of proactive planning, the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) enacted a “Greener NHS” program with the goal of becoming the world’s first net-zero national health service. 

Reducing the health service’s carbon footprint is both a fiscal and public health imperative.

Clinical Benefits of Sustainable Healthcare Practices

While curbing healthcare’s environmental impacts is a worthy goal, sustainability initiatives can also improve patient care and outcomes. 

The “prevention” pillar—keeping populations healthier through lifestyle factors and preventive screenings—reduces care demands and associated resource usage. 

Leaner, more integrated care pathways facilitated by technology platforms better coordinate services, eliminate wasteful duplications and enhance the patient experience.

Within healthcare facilities themselves, salutogenic design principles focused on factors like indoor air quality, natural lighting, green spaces, and antimicrobial surfaces can accelerate patient recovery times and boost staff productivity. 

Similarly, environmentally preferable materials, furniture, cleaning products, and food services diminish toxic exposures for patients, visitors, and employees.

Antimicrobial stewardship programs optimizing antibiotic use curb the rise of resistant bacteria while reducing pharmaceutical waste released into waterways. 

Healthcare organizations embracing sustainability report improved patient satisfaction scores, faster throughput, and lower readmissions, alongside reduced environmental footprints and financial impacts.

Strategies for Sustainable Healthcare Transformation

Recognizing healthcare systems’ unsustainable trajectories, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a call to action with 10 strategic objectives, including fostering preventive public health policies, mobilizing sustainable financing models, prioritizing “green” facility design/construction, sustainable procurement practices, and reducing emissions/pollution in service delivery.

Successfully operationalizing those objectives requires leadership commitment to sustainability as a core value—not merely a project or checklist. 

That means engaging health workers as partners in the transformation, soliciting their expertise to develop initiatives and shape behavior change. 

A value-driven quality improvement approach expands the “triple aim” of cost, quality, and access to incorporate environmental impacts in redesigning care pathways.

Technology enablers are also critical, from telemedicine reducing patient travel to remote monitoring improving care coordination to data analytics pinpointing efficiency opportunities. 

Public-private collaborations like the Global Climate and Health Alliance further accelerate and disseminate best practices. 

With foresight and resolve, healthcare leaders can align sustainability and clinical excellence for patients and communities.

Several emerging healthcare innovations promise even greater sustainability impacts in years ahead:

Renewable energy: Continued cost declines for solar, wind, and energy storage systems make renewable power more viable for healthcare facilities. New net zero energy hospitals like the Benton Franklin Health District in WA showcase trailblazing on-site renewables and efficiency.

Waste reduction: Promising technologies like microwave sterilization, materials recycling, and improved wastewater treatment can replace environmentally destructive incineration and disposal practices.

Predictive analytics: AI and remote sensing provide new tools to optimize inventory management, streamline operations, and pinpoint areas for sustainability gains. New “digital twin” hospital models can virtually map impacts.

Sustainable transportation: From ambulances and mobile health clinics to employee commutes and supply chains, the rollout of electric and other clean vehicles addresses a major healthcare emissions source.

While technology alone is no panacea, strategic adoption of these tools can accelerate sustainability while boosting operational efficiency and patient experiences. 

Beyond just piloting innovations, successful scaling calls for bold vision, change management, and collaboration across the healthcare ecosystem.

Concluding Sustainable Healthcare

There is enormous evidence proving that greenhouse gas emissions and waste from the healthcare industry are deteriorating the environment. 

This is a sign that the industry must implement green practices as soon as possible, and learn what is sustainable healthcare. It is crucial for communities around and general public health.

On top of the overall environmental impact, embodying sustainability can also be economical, for instance, the usage of renewable energy.

Nevertheless, the benefit of going sustainable is not limited to just finances. Incorporating practices like integrated care and eco-friendly facility design improves clinic quality and patient treatment experience.

A sustainable healthcare system makes communities more resilient. In cases of natural disasters and emerging disease threats which are currently worsened due to abrupt climate change, going green goes a long way.

Judging by the existing climate conditions, there is no doubt that this is the only path to ensure safe and viable healthcare for future generations.


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