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Do we value money over people and the planet? Experts challenge priorities in healthcare sustainability

Health Industry Hub | June 28, 2024 |

ESG: Majority (60%) of Australians feel a sense of urgency for healthcare to be delivered sustainably to minimise its environmental impact. However, 1 in 2 do not think that sustainable healthcare practices are being widely adopted, according to a survey from Philips Australia.

With the healthcare sector accounting for 7% of Australia’s total carbon emissions, a panel discussion led by Olesya Struk, Senior Director of Group Sustainability at Philips Australia & New Zealand and the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA), explored long-term strategies for embedding sustainability into healthcare.

Kylie Woolcock, CEO of the Australian Healthcare and Hospitals Association (AHHA), emphasised the importance of reducing low-value care.

“Estimates suggest only 60% of the healthcare we deliver is in line with guidance or guidelines, at least 30% is waste, duplication or low-value care, and the final 10% is care that leads to harm. So, doing less is an obvious way to reduce emissions.”

Aki Haukilahti, Vice President of Tays Heart Hospital in Finland discussed the impact of consumables and digital health on sustainability.

“The biggest issue is consumables. We need cooperation with the medical device industry to find solutions. The other challenge is services used to deliver care for the patients. Hospitals generate a lot of waste, with four kilos per patient on average at our site.

“By increasing the use of digital care services, we can have an impact. For example, all our pacemaker patients receive remote monitoring. That way we reduce hospital visits and the carbon footprint,” he explained.

Woolcock also highlighted the role of Health Technology Assessment (HTA) in promoting sustainability.

“HTA plays a big part. Our funding models need to incentivise high-value care. The regulation should enable our workforce to work to the top of their scope of practice, and ensure we’re measuring the right data. Consistency between the public and private sectors is a big one too,” she commented.

AHHA has partnered with the International Hospital Federation to accelerate sustainability in the health sector.

“It is about connecting a data-driven approach to hospital sustainability strategy and actionable insights,” Woolcock added.

Despite the launch of Australia’s first National Health and Climate Strategy last year, no funding was allocated in the May Federal Budget to advance it.

Angie Bone, Associate Professor at the Monash Sustainable Development Institute, expressed concerns about the adequacy of current efforts.

“Is what we’re doing enough? My fear is that it’s not enough,” she emphasised.

“We’re spending a lot of time optimising and stabilising our existing systems to do what we’re doing a little better. My concern is that as climate change progresses, we need to go through a massive transformation and we can either do that in a planned way or wait until the situation is so bad that we have no choice.”

Associate Professor Bone also raised critical questions about the impact of values and governance on sustainability initiatives.

“How do we value things? Is money the only thing that we care about or do we care about people and the planet?” she asked.

She continued, “Also, how do we address the issue of time preference? The fact that we discount costs and benefits in the future, which doesn’t help us take a long view for planning. Are we organising and governing ourselves in the most effective way for the complexity that we’re dealing with? Silos have their benefits, but you really need strong integration between them. We spend too much time thinking about the boxes and not enough time thinking about the glue.

“It is also worth reflecting on whether we are organising ourselves in the best way for the current challenge, both from a research and policy perspective. And lastly, are we preparing the next generation for the way that they need to respond?”

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