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Three ways to drive sustainability in healthcare

May 07, 2021
Business Affairs
Robert Metzke (courtesy: Philips)
By Robert Metzke

Climate change is one of the greatest threats to our wellbeing, yet the industry that is devoted to keeping us healthy is also still one of the largest contributors to the problem. If the healthcare sector was a country, it would be the fifth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, accounting for around 4% of global CO2 emissions, which is more than aviation or the shipping industry. While many in the healthcare industry have started to turn to renewable energy sources, that is only one piece of the puzzle, and to some extent, is the ‘low hanging fruit’ of sustainability. Solving issues such as reducing emissions across entire patient pathways or supply chains and limit the waste of natural resources are far more challenging. So, what else can the healthcare industry do to realize a world that is not limited to being healthy or sustainable, but one that is both healthy and sustainable?

For any health technology company who aims to improve patient care, embedding sustainability into one’s innovation and mitigating climate change are critical to fulfilling its purpose. As one of the first health technology companies in the world to become fully carbon-neutral in its operations, we at Philips hope to inspire others in the industry to adopt three approaches that are helping us practice sustainability: prioritizing EcoDesign in innovation, dematerializing healthcare wherever possible through digital solutions, and developing outcome-based solutions.

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Why sustainability in healthcare matters
Climate change and human health are intrinsically linked. Many of the pollutants emitted by the healthcare industry are themselves harmful to human health, and their contribution to global warming could pose a far greater long-term health threat. Even today’s modest 1.0⁰C (1.8⁰F) warming above pre-industrial levels is causing an increase in severe weather events, such as life-threatening heatwaves, in many parts of the world. Yet, according to the IPCC Special Report: Global Warming of 1.5°C, “limiting global warming to 1.5°C instead of 2°C could result in around 420 million fewer people being frequently exposed to extreme heatwaves.”

Practicing sustainability is not just good for the planet, it’s good for our health – so much so that the World Health Organization (WHO) called the Paris Climate Treaty possibly the most important healthcare treaty of the 21st century. The necessary reduction in CO₂ emissions from fossil fuels and short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs) would also prevent millions of deaths from respiratory disease. Eating less high-carbon-footprint meat and more fruit and vegetables would result in reductions in heart disease, obesity, diabetes and cancer. Keeping global warming below 2°C would mean less chance of creating the conditions in which highly infectious zoonotic diseases such as COVID-19 can gain a foothold and reap havoc.

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