Creating sustainable healthcare for the future

UK doctor and climate change advocate, Dr David Pencheon, is calling on health services to take affirmative action to address their environmental footprint if they want to transition towards high-quality and sustainable healthcare.

In a keynote address at the Royal Australasian College of Physicians’ (RACP) 2018 Congress in Sydney, Dr Pencheon said health services can make radical shifts in the way they use their resources, improving health and care at the same time.

“Climate change is an area where we need to step up and as doctors, do no harm at a population level,” Dr Pencheon explained.

“If we’re going to make big changes to how hospitals are run and how patients access services, considering the predicted changes in climate, there needs to be major changes in the way healthcare is delivered. There’s very little point in treating illnesses if the process of doing so makes others unhealthy, now and in the future.”

In managing their everyday tasks and treating patients, research shows that healthcare services and hospitals generate seven per cent of Australia’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

Reflecting on his experience in the National Health Service (NHS) in England, Dr Pencheon said small steps such as creating transport hubs and offering free bicycles at hospitals has proven to be a cost-effective solution which also creates a more sustainable environment.

“Health services can introduce all sorts of innovations like building bus stations in hospitals in partnership with local transport,” Dr Pencheon said. “This is good for patients, for visitors, for staff and for a healthy environment.

“When you make it easier to get to a hospital by public transport, you improve air quality, you increase physical activity and you also address the issue of hospital car parking fees.”

Environmental laws and regulations in the NHS also include mandatory reporting to help hospitals celebrate their successes and share best practice throughout the largest employer in western Europe.

“One of things we’ve introduced in the NHS is mandatory reporting of a hospital’s sustainability performance,” Dr Pencheon explained.

“We moved from a voluntary system where people willingly shared their first steps, to expecting hospitals to report on their sustainability performance, to making it mandatory. Sustainability reporting is now embedded in the UK system and is helping to create practices in hospitals that understand and address CO2 emissions.”

Dr Pencheon said it was important to normalise the conversation around ‘sustainable healthcare’ as a routine domain of quality to create meaningful change.

“Clinical leaders and Hospital administrators should be advocating, ‘a high-quality health system needs to be environmentally sustainable in the same way as it needs to be financially and socially sustainable’.

“As human beings, we should focus less on assuming we are doing more good than harm and consider changes that can improve health using all available resources and producing minimal pollution,” he said.

Dr Pencheon was the founder director of the NHS Sustainable Development Unit in England. The SDU was created 10 years ago to ensure the NHS operated in an environmentally sustainable way.

In January 2016, the NHS released the Sustainable Development in Health and Care Report which showed the NHS reduced its carbon emissions by 11 per cent during 2007-2015 exceeding the 10 per cent target set in 2009. This was achieved despite an 18 per cent increase of healthcare activity, while saving money, adding social value, and improving health.
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