Sustainability has emerged as a prominent factor that influences the operations and strategies of industries on a global scale. The significant shift can be attributed to the increasing awareness and environmental consciousness among consumers, who are growing mindful of the ecological repercussions of their usage of services and product purchases. In response to consumer demand and a growing recognition of its link to innovation, competitiveness, and profitability, industries must proactively incorporate sustainability in their operations and strategies.
With the healthcare industry driving some of the most significant impacts on society, there is an imminent need for it to undergo a comprehensive transformation toward sustainability.
Is the healthcare industry actually healthy?
The healthcare sector, while essential for public health, is also a significant contributor to environmental degradation. Globally, the industry ranks as the fifth-largest greenhouse gas emitter worldwide, accounting for over 4.5% of global emissions. Healthcare facilities worldwide consume large amounts of power, primarily for heating, cooling, and ventilation. Among these facilities, hospitals are often recognized as one of the most energy-intensive and wasteful, collectively producing greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to over 100 coal plants.
The manufacturing, delivery, consumption, and disposal of pharmaceutical drugs, medical products, and services also lead to massive waste production. Furthermore, a substantial portion of the waste produced is potentially hazardous, presenting challenges for workers in safely disposing of them. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the global pandemic generated waste to the tune of 87,000 tonnes of personal protective equipment (PPE) kits and 144,000 tonnes of additional waste from vaccine research and distribution.
With the risk of such massive environmental implications, there is a need for the healthcare industry to address its ecological impact and adopt sustainable practices.
Achieving synergy of sustainability and healthcare
The healthcare industry must balance the providence of high-quality healthcare with minimal environmental impact. This delicate equilibrium can be achieved through a few strategic measures.
The adoption of recycling and reusing equipment and materials wherever possible across the healthcare continuum is imperative. Establishing proper waste management frameworks, including the usage of reusable instead of single-use products and the segregation of recyclable and hazardous waste, are some of the primary steps that must be undertaken.
Hospitals and other healthcare facilities must incorporate green building design principles, such as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification.
This includes strategies for energy efficiency, water conservation, waste reduction, and the use of environmentally-friendly materials, enabling sustainability in the long run. Additionally, renewable energy sources such as solar power and wind power must also be considered for the energy needs of healthcare facilities to help reduce emissions.
Sustainable supply chain
Healthcare providers and suppliers must engage actively and closely with each other toward sustainable sourcing and distribution. Healthcare organizations must work with suppliers and manufacturers to ensure that medical products are designed and packaged to be recyclable. In addition, eco-friendly transport such as electric vehicles or local supply partners to reduce transportation-related emissions must be explored.
Ethical and responsible practices
The healthcare industry has a social responsibility to uphold toward all the stakeholders within the healthcare ecosystem. All healthcare employers must ensure equitable compensation, reasonable work hours, and safe working conditions while regularly partaking in unbiased audits for fair labor practices. Moreover, the healthcare industry must actively promote community health with initiatives such as health education and preventive care programs, and even outreach programs for underserved communities.
Health and sustainability
Sustainable practices not only positively impact the environment but also yield improved health outcomes for patients. For instance, practices such as organic farming, reducing the use of pesticides, and supporting local food systems can lead to healthier food options for consumers and contribute to biodiversity conservation. Similarly, healthy habits like walking and cycling can enhance long-term health and reduce healthcare costs while minimizing air pollution.