A shocking statistic was revealed in a day’s sessionThe Climate Crisis: Healthcare’s Responsibility for Our Planet” at the HIMSS22 European Conference on Thursday (June 16)).
according to Report from the NGO Health Care Without Harm, about 4.4% of the world’s net greenhouse gas emissions come from the healthcare sector – double those from the aviation industry. These emissions lead directly to global warming.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has described climate change as the “biggest health risk of the century”. It is estimated that between 2030 and 2050 climate change will cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths annually.
Speakers during the session are: Ronald Lavatier, CEO (CEO), International Hospital Federation Committee member, Geneva Center for Health Leadership for Sustainability, Switzerland; Nancy Jennings, Health Adviser and AMR Leader of the UK Mission to the European Union in Brussels, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Belgium; Timo Tervainen, Chief Economist, Climate Leadership Alliance, Finland; Dr. Brigitte Seroussi, Director in Charge of Digital Health Ethics, DNS, French Ministry of Solidarity and Health, France; Isabelle Kumar, former Euronews anchor, caregiver, disabled rights activist, Autism Head, Tomooh, Avigner, France
Timo Tervainen, chief economist, Climate Leadership Coalition, told delegates at the conference that global temperature had already risen by 1° Celsius. He explained some of the ways global health is affected by climate change, including weather-related disasters, food and water scarcity, and rising sea levels leading to mass migration. In addition to this, it causes outdoor air pollution 3.3 million deaths around the world every year.
“One needs to understand a very simple point. Climate does not punish production – it punishes emissions,” Tervainen said. “Our task should be to shift from dirty 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 live broadcast to explain the “Digital Health Paradox”.
“We know all the advantages of digital health tools and services in terms of patient safety, quality of care, and cost reduction,” said Dr. Serosi. “But on the flip side, we also know that digital health has an impact on environmental health.”
To work towards the goal of zero carbon emissions, the French Ministry of Solidarity and Health has worked to raise awareness of all players in the system including healthcare professionals, patients and program providers.
France has also established a system for promoting environmental design by measuring the sustainability of digital health tools. To be available on the digital patient platform in the country, Mon Espace Santeapplications must meet the limit of “two economic outcomes” based on criteria such as energy consumed.
“We have to be proactive in solutions,” Dr. Serossi concluded. “We must all get involved to protect our planet and rethink our true needs to develop green digital health.”
Educating the health workforce
Ronald Lavater, CEO of the International Hospital Federation (IHF), said that in his more than 25-year career in hospital management, the role of hospital leader has not been sustainable in his mindset.
“We didn’t think about climate change,” Lavater continued. “We may have had a recycling program or solar panels on the roof, but the real view of how hospitals are impacting climate change, and their contribution to the problem, was not part of the training either at school or at work.”
Healthcare Without Harm has produced a Global Roadmap in 2021, which outlines three pathways where hospitals can make improvements.
Actions hospitals can take to reduce their environmental impact include reducing carbon within the facility, removing carbon from the supply chain, and impacting the broader economy in ways such as getting sustainable food in hospitals.
“Hospitals contribute to climate change,” Lavater said. “At the IHF, we recognize that climate change is a major component and we’re ahead of hospital administrators’ agenda, so we assembled a key team and formed the Geneva Sustainability Center.”
The center has a vision to support hospitals to become leaders for sustainability in the community.
“We want to enable C-Suite to build awareness, give them the tools to speak to their boards, speak to their employees, engage with their communities, and reduce their carbon footprint,” Lavater said.
In addition to climate change, healthcare is facing the threat of antimicrobial resistance (AMR), which has been dubbed ‘silent epidemic’.
Nancy Jennings, Health Adviser and Head of the UK Mission to the European Union, said AMR issues are interlinked and need to be approached with a similar approach.
Antimicrobial resistance was associated with 1.2 million deaths and directly responsible for 4.9 million deaths worldwide in 2019, making it the third largest cause of death after heart disease and stroke.
“Bacteria will evolve to overpower antibiotics, which means that penicillin, for example, is less effective than it was two, five, 10 or 20 years ago,” Jennings explained.
This problem is largely due to intensive farming methods that see animals routinely treated with prophylactic antibiotics as an alternative to veterinary care. These antibiotics then enter the food chain and ecosystem. Another culprit is the big pharmaceutical companies, where some factories have been found to leak toxic waste, including antibiotics, into rivers.
So, what can be done about this issue? There are no quick fixes, but Jennings’ closing message to healthcare professionals is to think carefully before prescribing antibiotics and proactively educate patients about the problem of antimicrobial resistance.