Hospital Adaptation for Climate Change

Words by Dr Forbes McGain

Climate change has deleterious effects upon our health and our environment. Healthcare also contributes to CO2 emissions and thus climate change by the purchase and discard of medical consumables, transport for patients, families and hospital staff, and direct hospital energy usage.

Sustainability is about much more than just climate change, but climate change is an existential threat that needs to be solved soon. By making hospitals more sustainable we; reduce their carbon footprint, send a message of social and corporate environmental sustainability to the community, save money, increase healthcare’s resilience, increase efficiencies and improve resource stewardship. By making healthcare more environmentally sustainable we deal with the co-benefits of reducing obesity and diabetes whilst increasing active transport, improving patients’ diets etc.

Unlike climate change, where much is already known about the fundamentals, there is much that we do not know about hospital sustainability. The evidence base for sustainable architecture (and the building fabric) is broad, but the evidence base for how we do things within hospitals is low. For example, we do not know the environmental footprint of many commonly used medical devices or procedures, nor the varying footprints of alternative waste disposal, nor that of oral versus intravenous drugs, nor hospital versus day centre care, nor what the environmental effects of stopping just one person from smoking will be, the list rolls on…

There are large opportunities for what is already known about hospital sustainability. We know that hospitals are inefficient users of energy and somewhat slow to institute beneficial environmental changes (such as energy efficient lighting and air conditioning). Further, renewable energy sources for hospital electricity will drive down carbon emissions though they are only just emerging as financially viable in Australia, due to hospital electricity’s ‘bulk buy’ low cost.

As an AMA/AMSA member you can be part of the move to more sustainable hospitals in four main different ways;

  1. Advocate with or for hospital sustainability officers. Whether your advocacy be for greater energy efficiency, ‘solar in hospitals’ or greater recycling hospital administration ‘knows’ what staff are interested and passionate about
  2. Advocate at the level of the AMA and State and Federal Government Health Departments for greater hospital environmental sustainability. Ask why there are no statewide aims for reduction in waste, nor healthcare energy efficiency and renewable energy targets, nor why there isn’t a Sustainable Development Unit such as exists in the UK. Indicate the many benefits of more sustainable healthcare.
  3. Research more efficient, effective medical care with a lower environmental footprint. I’d be happy to help you on this one, though all research takes persistence and effort! A new research base for hospital sustainability is just at its beginning.
  4. And don’t forget that public health will play a major role in all of this. If you’re a doctor/student who is a G.P. or in public health, your role is very important in keeping the population healthy, not smoking, nor drinking and eating excessively, and away from hospitals!.

Forbes McGain
Anaesthetist and ICU Physician
Western Health, Melbourne.

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