Environmental Sustainability & Healthcare

28 Feb 2022

Australia and New Zealand’s health and community sectors have deservedly earned goodwill for the key role they have played in leading both countries through uncharted territory for over two years now.

Front line teams have worked longer and harder than thought possible and their perseverance, coupled with steady leadership and deployment of new models of care and new technologies, have proven to be the best road to recover, including economic.

With an improving outlook ahead, from a covid recovery perspective, some are shifting their attention back to other looming challenges – sustainability and climate change.

According to the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) COP26 Health Program, healthcare providers account for about 4.6 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions because of their high energy requirements, procurement at scale and practices around disposal of materials, to name a few . In Australia, it is estimated the sector accounts for around 7 per cent of the nation’s emissions and about the same in New Zealand depending on who you’re talking to. These trends continue to rise but efforts are underway to curb environmentally harmful practices.

Often the first step is a diagnostic one. What are we doing now? What could we do more of? What could we do less of? What could we stop doing? What could we start doing?

Reducing Waste

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the problem of healthcare waste, but this has always been a significant issue for hospitals and other care facilities. The need for strict infection control results in single-use resources that are typically disposed of after use and often through environmentally harmful processes. By recycling just 40-60 percent of the clinical waste currently incinerated or landfilled, hospitals could create annual savings equivalent to the cost of hiring 40 nurses, according to NSW Circular.

Research is ongoing into new ways of recycling and sterilising equipment and materials to reduce waste. Still, healthcare facilities can already mitigate its impact through steps such as going paperless, installing digesters to process food waste and other strategies to divert more waste from landfills.

Improving Energy Infrastructure

Energy use in Australia’s healthcare industry is growing along with the demand for services and new facilities. Gas and electricity are necessary for lighting, heating, running equipment and many other purposes, contributing to the sector’s excessive carbon emissions.

Installing efficient systems and improving usage habits to reduce unnecessary energy consumption is a start, but to address this growing problem, healthcare facilities can and are starting to embrace renewable energy solutions, such as solar and wind power.

Initiatives already underway include the Regional Health Solar Program in Victoria, bringing solar panels to regional health facilities across the state, and UnitingCare Queensland committing to generate 100 per cent renewable electricity at its care centres by 2025.

Reducing Vehicle Emissions

Ambulances and other transport also contribute to the sector’s carbon footprint, as the uptake of electric and hybrid vehicles has been slow compared to other industries. That is, until the first electric ambulance launched in the UK, persuading local operators such as Ambulance Victoria to begin the transition to zero-emission vehicles to help them hit emissions reduction targets.

Lessons learned during the pandemic, accelerated by restriction of moment, have also helped to curb unnecessary transport. Virtual meetings, virtual consults and virtual multi-site or multi agency collaborations have all created significant efficiencies and saw vehicle fleets stationary.

Increased Deployment & Use of technology

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen an enormous increase in some areas of tech, in particular video calls and the implementation of more regular telehealth appointments. Spurred on by the restrictions of lockdowns, digital solutions allowed patients and healthcare professionals to keep their appointments without the need to travel.

Although face-to-face meetings are becoming more common again, there’s still a solid case to use tech where we can. Not only do telehealth appointments open up choices in terms of accessibility and availability in rural and remote settings, and for people with mobility issues, they also help save time, energy, raw materials and fuel, as patients don’t need to drive or fly to attend appointments, consequently lowering the carbon footprint.

As one of the silver linings of the global pandemic , the Australian Government announced on December 2021 that it will be providing $106 million over four years to keep supporting the on-going telehealth services making it a permanent service in our health system. Most recently, additional temporary changes were announced to the telehealth program, to give GPs and specialists further flexibility to support their patients safely allocating an additional $24 million to fund those changes.

Sustainable Procurement

From equipment, beds and garments to pharmaceuticals, healthcare facilities require a constant supply of goods, nearly all of which are produced externally, often with no regard for the method of manufacture.

Healthcare facilities are starting to implement sustainable procurement strategies to ensure their goods are manufactured and transported with regard to the environment, focusing on criteria such as recycled materials and energy-efficient production.

Encouraging Patients to Adopt Sustainable Practices

Some healthcare providers are demonstrating their green focus beyond an organisational focus to a  patient focus too, simple things like encouraging patients to return unused medication for recycling and using public transport to attend non-emergency appointments.

Future Proofed Design

With a workforce now far more attuned to not just where they work but how they work coupled with learnings driven by necessity, more than design, the sector is turning its attention to capitalising on that.

We discovered that a lot can be done without being in a hospital than we ever thought and this has accelerated leapfrog thinking about what else we could move into the community.

We reminded ourselves that big isn’t always beautiful and smaller scale builds are now being undertaken, or actively considered, with much more targeted design.

We quickly discovered that our infrastructure isn’t up to the job for virtual care inside a facility and that precincts and jurisdictions that prior to the pandemic made an investment in infrastructure, in particular telehealth infrastructure, have certainly reaped the benefits.

The challenge will be to resist the rubber band effect. The snapping back into our previous form. Something as humans we are really good at doing after an extreme event or emergency has passed us by.