Climate change is harming the health of Australians and stressing our health system. Yet the system itself is a major generator of carbon emissions.
40+ health leaders meeting at the Better Futures Forum at UNSW Canberra today have created an ambitious implementation plan to slash health-related carbon emissions, save money, and improve patient care.
“Hospitals, surgeries and clinics use huge amounts of energy, and produce mountains of waste each year. We can improve this right now by sourcing energy from renewable sources, electrifying transport fleets, expanding telehealth, decarbonising the supply chain, and putting in place water and waste management strategies ” said Dr Stefanie Carino, the Sustainable Healthcare Manager at the Climate and Health Alliance.
At the meeting, health leaders will call on the government to create a national Sustainable Healthcare Unit in the Commonwealth Department of Health to guide the health sector towards environmentally sustainable, decarbonised operations. This model has already been implemented in the UK, and is being adopted in some states, including WA, Queensland and NSW
“The UK National Health System has shown us what’s possible,” said Dr Carino. “The UK’s Sustainable Health Unit reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 11 % in 10 years, while health care activity increased by 18%.”
By 2017, the financial savings amounted to £90 million (over A$150m) per year, mainly from energy, waste and water initiatives.
In Australia, over 100 health systems and health networks are members of the regional network of Global Green and Healthy Hospital, an international community of practice working towards climate resilient, low carbon healthcare.
“A national Sustainable Healthcare Unit would play an important role in coordinating the national response to climate change, and healthcare decarbonisation efforts. CAHA looks forward to working with Minister Butler and his department to formulate the way forward.
“The health sector is already getting on with the job. Hospitals and health clinics are taking practical steps right now, with the guidance of state governments. But we need federal leadership to decarbonise our healthcare system to the scale that’s needed,” says Dr Carino.
The Climate and Health Alliance (CAHA) released its framework for a national climate health strategy in October 2021. Using this as a basis, the roundtable on Monday 5 September 2022 will focus on recommendations for actions that can be readily adopted to reduce the impact of climate change on health, and to decarbonise the health sector.
The framework outlines actions for all levels of government, agencies and institutions, social services, business, universities, professional associations, unions, accreditation agencies, superannuation firms, and financial institutions. The report’s key recommendations include:
- Establish a Sustainable Healthcare Unit in the Commonwealth Department of Health to guide the health sector towards sustainable and low carbon operations, and support state and territory health jurisdictions to decarbonise;
- Establish a Ministerial Forum of state, territory and Commonwealth ministers, to ensure coordination across Health, Climate, and other relevant portfolios;
- Undertake a national health vulnerability and capacity assessment to identify and monitor populations most susceptible to climate-health impacts. Improve coordination and investment in national disaster preparedness;
- Invest in an evaluation of the health and economic impacts of climate change, and the health and economic benefits of climate policies;
- Conduct a scoping exercise to map existing climate and health initiatives across Ministries and jurisdictions, identify synergies, and develop further policy options and investments.
Some of the practical steps in the framework include:
- Telemedicine reduces the carbon footprint of healthcare compared to face-to-face consultations where travel-related savings are sufficient to offset the carbon footprint of the telemedicine service; can reduce hospital referrals and face-to-face consultations and create economic savings in dermatology
- Changing and washing anaesthesia breathing circuits less often indicates no compromise on patient safety and reduces washing costs and time cost
- Environmentally Preferable Purchasing can achieve significant GHG reductions without compromising cost, clinical efficacy nor efficiency; reduces expenditure
- Reprocessing single-use devices – in 2018 reprocessing in the US saved $471 million and 7,000 tons of medical waste; lower carbon footprint; no evidence of patient harm
- Anaesthetic gas scavenging – shown to be efficient; decreased climate impact; limits rebreathing of volatile gases
- Training and education of staff – reduced chemical use and improvements in waste disposal; reduced cost of disposable equipment in surgery
- Donating unused medical supplies to countries in need Pilot programs have demonstrated effectiveness
From Appendix 3 of Climate Change and Australia’s Healthcare Systems report