This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.
Author: Robert Metzke, Global Head of Sustainability, Philips
If I’ve learned one thing working in the healthcare sector, it’s the earlier you can diagnose a disease, the better chance you have of curing it – or at least mitigating its impact on the patient. When it comes to the health of the planet – on which all human health ultimately relies – the symptoms and the scientific evidence already point to a clear diagnosis: anthropogenic global warming.
The necessary reduction in CO2 emissions from fossil fuels, together with the associated reduction in short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs) such as black carbon particulates and nitrous oxides that increase tropospheric ozone, would prevent millions of deaths from respiratory disease.
Encouraging people to eat more fruit and vegetables and less meat, something each of us can do to reduce our carbon footprint, would result in reductions in heart disease, obesity, diabetes and cancer. Even the economics add up. The resulting savings in healthcare costs would outweigh the cost of the climate change mitigation and adaptation measures needed to stay below the 2°C threshold.
Limit global warming to 1.5°C or less and the world could also continue to meet the UN Sustainability Goals, especially those related to eradicating poverty and reducing inequality. In terms of SDG3 ( “Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages”) it would make it much easier to build climate-resilient healthcare systems. We could continue to leverage telehealth to improve access to care, reduce healthcare’s carbon footprint and provide early warnings of health risks due to climate-related events such as heatwaves and the spread of infectious diseases.
If, on the other hand, warming is allowed to exceed 2°C, the implications for human health could be catastrophic. Building climate-resilient healthcare systems requires stable socio-political structures, institutions and infrastructures that could easily break down in a post 2°C world. Conflict, forced migration, poverty and malnutrition are all bad for people’s physical and mental health. Yet, with rising sea levels and more frequent extreme weather events, all three could be inflicted on a significant proportion of the world’s population. The biggest impact will be on disadvantaged and vulnerable communities unable to buy themselves out of the problems.
We cannot wait for national policies, which will inevitably develop at different rates with different agendas, to set the pace of change. We need to globally unite, quickly, and lead by example, developing best-practice international guidelines and standards for sustainable, climate-resilient healthcare development in the same way our healthcare professionals develop best-practice guidelines for treating patients. It’s going to require technology innovation, outside-the-box thinking and multi-disciplinary multi-sector collaboration, the like of which has not been seen before in the industry.
Until recently, the healthcare sector’s voice has not been loud enough in the climate change debate. Yet two things mark out why it has a lot to say. First, the entire healthcare industry is based on a “duty of care,” and second, anyone who works at the frontline of healthcare delivery has seen for themselves the impact poor health has on people’s lives. In terms of action on climate change, few if any industries are as free from vested interests, potentially stranded assets or political bias, and few are as committed to evidence-based decision making.
“Greening” the healthcare industry will involve myriad other initiatives such as the intelligent use of low-carbon technologies, low-carbon building design and construction, greater energy efficiency, sustainable waste, water, transport and anaesthetics management and greater use of telemedicine. It will require low-carbon supply chains based on circular-economy solutions minimizing raw material extraction and greenhouse gas emissions.
It runs alongside the United Nations General Assembly, which this year features a one-day climate summit. This is timely given rising public fears – and citizen action – over weather conditions, pollution, ocean health and dwindling wildlife. It also reflects the understanding of the growing business case for action.
With its highly complex and diverse supply chains and $8 trillion global purchasing power, healthcare has the ability to pull climate mitigation levers across many different sectors: upstream in areas such as plastics, pharmaceuticals, chemicals and paper production; downstream in areas such as e-waste recycling and clinical waste disposal; and day-to-day in operational areas such as energy supply and food sourcing. It’s also an industry with one of the biggest vested interests in maintaining biodiversity as a valuable source of new drugs and antibiotics.
Healthcare is one of the world’s most technologically advanced sectors, highly adept at recognizing and exploiting the benefits technology can bring to patients. In little over 10 years it’s driven a 100-fold decrease in the cost of genome sequencing, helping to diagnose and treat diseases such as cancer. It’s using the latest secure communication, cloud-based computing and artificial intelligence technologies to create connected care solutions that monitor and follow patients through every stage of the care cycle. It’s connecting remote and under-resourced communities to world-class clinical expertise on the other side of the world.
Whether mitigating climate change or improving access to quality care, the healthcare sector needs to lead by example. It should apply its dictum of “first do no harm,” and the ethical standards its practitioners commit to in the Hippocratic Oath, as much to the planet as it does to its patients. The good news is: if it applies those principles to mitigating the worst effects of climate change, improved human health comes as an added bonus. Together, through innovation, responsible leadership and cooperation to create sustainable climate-resilient ecosystems, we can not only combat climate change, we also can expand access to quality healthcare and improve health outcomes for all.