A shocking statistic was revealed at the session on ‘Climate Crisis: Healthcare’s Responsibility to Our Planet’ at the HIMSS22 European Conference on Thursday (16 June).
According to a report from the NGO, Healthcare without Harm, around 4.4% of the world’s net greenhouse gas emissions come from the healthcare sector – double those from the airline industry. These emissions directly lead to global warming.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has called climate change “the biggest health risk of the century”. It estimates that between 2030 and 2050 climate change will cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year.
The speakers during the session were: Ronald Lavater, chief executive officer (CEO), committee member, International Hospital Federation, The Geneva Centre of Healthcare Leadership for Sustainability, Switzerland; Nancy Jennings, health advisor and AMR lead for the UK Mission to the EU in Brussels, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Belgium; Timo Tyrväinen, chief economist, Climate Leadership Coalition, Finland; Dr Brigitte Seroussi, director in charge of digital health ethics, DNS, French Ministry of Solidarity and Health, France; Isabelle Kumar, former Euronews anchor, carer, disability rights campaigner, president of Autisme, Ambition, Avenir, France
Timo Tyrväinen, chief economist, Climate Leadership Coalition, told delegates at the conference that the global temperature had already risen by 1° Celsius. He outlined some of the ways in which global health is impacted by climate change including weather-related disasters, food and water scarcity, and rising sea levels which lead to mass migration. In addition to this outdoor air pollution causes to 3.3 million deaths worldwide each year.
“One needs to understand a very simple point. Climate does not punish for production – it punishes for emissions,” said Tyrväinen. “Our task must be to switch from dirty production to clean production.”
The digital health paradox
Dr Brigitte Seroussi, director in charge of digital health ethics, DNS, French Ministry of Solidarity and Health joined the conference via livestream to explain ‘the paradox of digital health.’
“We know all the benefits of digital health tools and services in terms of patient safety, care quality and cost reduction,” said Dr Seroussi. “But on the other side, we also know that digital health does has an environmental health impact.”
To work towards the goal of a zero-carbon footprint, the French Ministry of Solidarity and Health has worked on the raising the awareness of all the players in the system including healthcare professionals, patients and software providers.
France also created a system to promote eco-design by measuring the sustainability of digital health tools. To be made available on the country’s digital patient platform, Mon Espace Santé, apps must meet the threshold for two ‘eco scores’ based on criteria such as energy consumed.
“We have to be actors of the solutions,” concluded Dr Seroussi. “We should all engage to protect our planet and rethink our real needs to develop eco-friendly digital health.”
Educating the health workforce
Ronald Lavater, CEO of the International Hospital Federation (IHF), said that during his career of more than 25 years in hospital administration the role of a hospital leader didn’t have sustainability in its mindset.
“We didn’t think about climate change,” continued Lavater. “We may have had a recycling programme or solar panels on the roof, but the real look at how hospitals impact climate change, and are contributing to the problem, wasn’t part of the training either at school or on the job.”
Healthcare without Harm produced a global roadmap in 2021, which lies out three pathways where hospitals can make improvements.
Actions hospitals can take to reduce their environmental impact include reducing carbon within the facility, decarbonising the supply chain, and impacting the broader economy in ways such as sourcing sustainable hospital food.
“Hospitals are contributing to climate change,” Lavater said. “At IHF we recognise that climate change is a major item and moving up on the agenda for hospital administrators, so we brought together a key team and formed Geneva Sustainability Centre.”
The centre has a vision to support hospitals to become leaders for sustainability in the community.
“We want to enable the C-Suite to build awareness and give them the tools to talk to their boards, to talk to their employees, interact with their communities and reduce their carbon footprint” said Lavater.
The silent pandemic
As well as climate change, healthcare is facing the threat of antimicrobial resistance (AMR), which has been dubbed ‘the silent pandemic’.
Nancy Jennings, health advisor and AMR lead for the UK Mission to the EU, said that the issues of AMR and climate change were linked and needed to be treated with a similar approach.
AMR was associated with 1.2 million deaths and directly responsible for 4.9 million deaths worldwide in 2019, making it the third biggest cause of death behind heart disease and stroke.
“Bacteria will evolve to circumvent antibiotics, meaning that penicillin for example, is less effective than it was two, five, 10 or 20 years ago,” explained Jennings.
The issue is largely caused by intensive farming methods which see animals routinely treated with preventative antibiotics as a substitute for veterinary care. These antibiotics then go into the food chain and the ecosystem. Another culprit is big pharma, with some industrial plants found to be leaking toxic waste, including antibiotics, into rivers.
So, what can be done about the issue? There are no quick fix solutions, but Jennings’ closing message to healthcare professionals is to think carefully before prescribing antibiotics and proactively educate patients about the issue of AMR.