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Here’s how healthcare can reduce its carbon footprint

Climate change and pollution are endangering the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people around the world, often impacting the most vulnerable communities

By: EBR - Posted: Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Collaboration is vital to drive sustainable change and deliver on the Paris Agreement climate goals, especially in a complex sector like healthcare.
Collaboration is vital to drive sustainable change and deliver on the Paris Agreement climate goals, especially in a complex sector like healthcare.

by Robert Metzke*

Climate change and pollution are endangering the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people around the world, often impacting the most vulnerable communities. At this year’s 77th UN General Assembly, its President Csaba Korosi said in his closing remarks: “Climate change is gradually destroying us … Yet, some of us still seem not convinced that growing our economies can be balanced with limiting emissions and preserving biodiversity.”

Back in 2015 the Lancet Commission stated that,“Tackling climate change could be the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century". And according to the US-based CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), climate impacts such as increasing temperatures, extreme weather and rising CO2 levels affect a wide range of health outcomes.

Fortunately, health leaders acknowledge this, as well as the vital role sustainability plays in pursuing long-term population health goals.

Working together to tackle today’s healthcare challenges

On a global average basis, healthcare systems account for over 4% of global CO2 emissions. For most industrialized nations, that figure is closer to 10% of national emissions. That is more than the aviation or shipping sectors. As an industry, which includes health technology companies, healthcare systems and other stakeholders, we have a responsibility to act. It is time to extend the principle of “first, do no harm” – the very foundation of healthcare – to the planet.

The good news is there is a lot we can do to improve things, here and now, together. Collaboration is vital to drive sustainable change and deliver on the Paris Agreement climate goals, especially in a complex sector like healthcare. By working together with customers, peers and partners across the value chain, we can help reduce our collective carbon footprint – and so leave a healthier planet, and a more resilient and sustainable healthcare industry, for future generations.

So, what are some of the strategies that health systems can adopt to help achieve these goals?

Reduce direct power consumption – renewables and energy efficiency

Hospitals have the highest energy intensity of all publicly funded buildings and emit 2.5 times more greenhouse gases than commercial buildings. Therefore, switching to renewable energy can have a major impact. In this area, partnering with peers can make an enormous difference by offering the necessary scale. Philips, for example, has secured its renewable electricity supply in Europe through consortium-led power purchase agreements.

The energy consumption of medical equipment is another area with great potential impact for large-scale, energy-intensive operations like hospitals. Industry initiatives as part of European trade association COCIR, for example, are helping to improve the energy efficiency and material efficiency of medical imaging equipment.

EcoDesigning imaging equipment to increase energy efficiency is a powerful lever to reduce emissions and address rising operational energy costs for care providers. As part of the EU Green Public Criteria for medical devices, COCIR has developed methodologies to provide purchasers with the information they need to calculate running costs and to select the best equipment for their needs.

Reduce indirect emissions through sustainable use of materials and circular economy

Some 40-50% of global CO2 emissions are attributable to materials extraction, supply, and the manufacture of equipment; this is often referred to as “embedded carbon”. Healthcare is a huge consumer of these resources. By adopting circular practices and ways of working, healthcare providers can find ways to use materials for medical systems and devices in a sustainable and low-carbon/carbon-free manner.

Take helium, for example. This noble gas is critical to maintaining long-term MR diagnostic availability, and global supply is limited. To address this issue, Philips have applied EcoDesign principles and developed a fully sealed magnet that massively reduces the amount of helium required.

With constant pressure on healthcare funding, there are several other options available to hospitals to extend the lifetime value, capabilities, and usability of their existing installed systems, without having to compromise on quality. For instance, refurbished medical equipment, such as Philips Circular Edition systems, allows customers to benefit from thoroughly refurbished, upgraded and quality-tested technology at lower cost.

Other examples include the adoption of innovative “as a service” models, extending lifetime resource efficiency, and implementing smart digital solutions.

Digital tools and software support “dematerialization” by enabling the creation of virtual resources that deliver maximum value with minimum resources. We see this driving a shift from resource-intensive clinical facilities to networked lower-cost settings and the home, thereby giving more people access to care. It also supports preventive care and telehealth, or virtual care, by enabling remote interaction between patients and care givers, thus avoiding the related travel and CO2 emissions.

Last but not least, the shift to cloud, service and software-based solutions is another example of dematerialization, saving on the materials needed for on-site enterprise hardware and reducing CO2 emissions. Studies have shown that 84% less power is consumed when customers use large, centralized cloud-based data centres instead of on-premises infrastructure.

Engage the supply chain

Direct emissions in the supply chain also need to be made transparent and be addressed. The supply chain (Scope 3, purchased goods and services) accounts for 71% of CO2 emissions within the EU. If we really want to decarbonize healthcare, we need to take an end-to-end view of the value chain, making procurement a central component of sustainability efforts and incentivizing suppliers to work together in lockstep. For instance, by offering improved payment terms to those who take concrete measures on climate action and commit to science-based reduction targets.

Radically optimize care along care pathways

In addition to the responsible and sustainable use of energy and materials, it is vital that we further optimize care pathways in order to reduce the environmental impact of treatment. Today, patient journeys are often arduous, involving multiple appointments for diagnosis, treatment and monitoring. And with the increasing number of co-morbidities in aging populations, this is frequently replicated across several specialisms. So while reducing the environmental footprint of health technology, it is also vital to improve the care system – by investing in prevention, precision diagnosis, minimally invasive therapies and aftercare – for the sake of both the patient and the environment.

Step up our action together

With our collective expertise, innovation capability and shared understanding of the need to drive systemic change, sustainable practices can be combined with safe, efficient, and effective methods of care to deliver better health outcomes, lower cost of care, and improved patient and staff experiences. Now is the time for healthcare providers, health technology companies, governments and other stakeholders to join together and implement the strategies, solutions and services that can deliver more resilient and sustainable healthcare for the generations to come.

*Global Head of Sustainability, Philips
**first published in: Weforum.org

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