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Healthcare industry’s environmental footprint under the microscope

Health Industry Hub | July 11, 2024 |

Healthcare systems are major emitters of greenhouse gases, but also have to manage increased demand for care as a consequence of the climate crisis. A new virtual laboratory, which will gather insights into the healthcare industry’s environmental footprint to accelerate sustainable solutions, was launched yesterday.

The University of Melbourne-led Healthcare Carbon Lab, at Western Health, will measure the environmental impacts and costs of common single-use items and medical equipment compared to reusable alternatives.

Project lead and Associate Dean of Healthcare Sustainability in the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences, Associate Professor Forbes McGain, said the lab will track and calculate the energy for the creation, use and disposal of medical equipment used in hospitals every day.

Associate Professor McGain, who is also an intensive care clinician at Western Health, said the lab will accelerate the long history of collaborating with University of Melbourne engineers to research and improve the efficiency of hospital energy use.

National healthcare emissions and percentage carbon footprint
Adapted from Karliner et al.

“It is well-documented Australia’s healthcare system contributes 7% of Australia’s carbon emissions, but what we need is more of the data to be able to understand how we can make better, more sustainable choices while keeping patient care front of mind,” Associate Professor McGain said.

“As an example, just one load of a hospital steam steriliser uses as much energy as a day’s total energy use for a four-person Victorian household. And now consider that each steriliser is on all day.

“There is growing impetus for change, and the Healthcare Carbon Lab will help inform healthcare sustainability as we tackle the broader problem of reducing waste and carbon emissions from our hospital system,” he explained.

“As a medtech industry we are focussing on lobbying for standardised reporting frameworks, and driving consistency in the sustainability requirements,” stated Liz Carnabuci, Vice President & Managing Director of Medtronic ANZ in an interview on World Environment Day.

A recent 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), also explored long-term strategies for embedding sustainability into healthcare.

Professor Jane Gunn AO, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences, said the lab showed how Melbourne’s health precincts reflect centres of best practice, impact and collaboration.

Adapted from Eckelman et al.

“The University values its collaborations with hospital and industry partners which allow us to accelerate the translation of research into much-needed sustainable solutions,” Professor Gunn said.

“This multi-disciplinary team of healthcare workers and researchers are addressing the problems of healthcare waste and carbon emissions.”

Professor Harrison said single-use equipment has become the standard practice in many countries globally.

“This leads to excessive waste, both financially and environmentally, and contributes to high carbon healthcare,” he said.

“We’ve shown that it is possible to implement sustainable solutions while continuing to deliver quality patient care and comfort for healthcare workers.

“This is a truly exciting opportunity to look at how we can be more sustainable in the healthcare sector.”

One of the projects led by Associate Professor McGain was the implementation of reusable medical gowns, which have been widely available to frontline staff across Western Health since 2022.

“We’ve found that in terms of infection-control there is no difference and a somewhat better comfort outcome for reusable polyester gowns,” he said.

“We’ve reduced waste going to landfill and also carbon from manufacturing costs of disposable gowns.”

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.”

Carnabuci offered advice to medtech organisations embarking on or expanding their sustainability journey.

“Environment and sustainability stewardship needs to be front and centre because there is still work to be done. We need to collaborate and foster the shared responsibility across all levels of the healthcare industry,” she emphasised.

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