How the industry created to keep us healthy is also causing illness on our planet and in our bodies

How the industry created to keep us healthy is also causing illness on our planet and in our bodies

How the industry created to keep us healthy is also causing illness on our planet and in our bodies

The essential and difficult task that healthcare systems take on is keeping us healthy. True health and wellbeing, however, go beyond the confines of the clinic and the exam room. After all, the health of our bodies and minds is only as good as the circumstances that support them.

Therefore, it should be obvious that anything harmful to our environment or planet is also harmful to our health. Sure, the natural, wonderful world around us is directly impacted by the loss of nature and biodiversity, increases in pollution, and bad management of our farmlands. But our own, human health is also suffering.

I made a promise to do no harm when I became a doctor. I upheld this promise in my role as a policymaker in Washington by concentrating on healthcare systems and global health. And now that I’m a spokesperson for nature and health in my capacity as The Nature Conservancy’s Chair of the Global Board, I’ve started to look more closely at the connection between the health of our bodies and the health of the natural world as well as the bigger, more obvious effects that broader industries like the healthcare sector are having on our environment.

How the industry created to keep us healthy is also causing illness on our planet and in our bodies
How the industry created to keep us healthy is also causing illness on our planet and in our bodies

The single greatest threat to our health that we face, according to the World Health Organization, is climate change. This can initially come off as alarmist. But when we examine the research and evidence, we can actually already see the devastating effects.

The worst weather event nowadays is extreme heat, which can cause heat stroke and exacerbate respiratory diseases like bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma. Similarly, extreme weather events like heat waves and wildfires have reduced food supplies, storms, floods, and wildfires have gotten worse and more deadly, water systems have become more contaminated by harmful runoff from heavy precipitation, and vector-borne diseases spread by insects and other animals are becoming more common.

The effects on our physical health are numerous, and these are only a few of them. As we lose access to parks and green spaces and the activities we love to do in nature, like hiking and cycling, become more difficult owing to bad air quality, our mental and emotional health is also at risk.

It’s time to find answers. And with the very people, institutions, and hospitals we depend on to keep our bodies healthy—our healthcare industry—we can begin enhancing the health of our environment and communities.

By all accounts, the healthcare industry in the United States ought to be one of the leading proponents of environmental stewardship, sustainability, and responsibility. Its only goal is to improve health. Ironically, it is one of the biggest contributors to global climate change and has a negative impact on our planet, our communities, our bodies, and even our own health and well-being.

This startling paradox serves as the basis for our industry’s self-examination, but the numbers speak for themselves:

The U.S. healthcare system is accountable for 9% of air pollutants, 12% of acid rain, 10% of smog production, and 10% of the nation’s total greenhouse gas emissions, which together cause anywhere from 44,000 to 98,000 deaths annually. Every single day, it also generates close to 7,000 tonnes of garbage.

The U.S. healthcare industry alone accounts for 25% of all healthcare-related greenhouse gas emissions, about 10% of the country’s total yearly carbon emissions, and the 13th-largest global carbon dioxide generator.

Our combined health system produced 3.8 million tonnes of carbon emissions in 2019, which is the same as running 815,000 automobiles or powering 478,000 homes annually.

Furthermore, our country’s high levels of healthcare spending are being accelerated by climate change and extreme weather. Air pollution and climate change are already costing the United States’ healthcare system more than $800 billion annually. This covers the health consequences of air pollution, particulate matter, and airborne allergens, tick- and mosquito-borne infections, illnesses linked to heat stress and wildfires, tainted food and water, and the effects of natural disasters on human health.

Clearly, this is a serious issue. And it’s a significant issue that the majority of my doctor and hospital acquaintances are completely ignorant of. The paradox is that we can change our direction with the proper research, the right amount of innovation, and the right people. And we in the healthcare industry have a huge opportunity and obligation to drive this change.

We need to invest in and protect nature in order to safeguard our health. However, this goes beyond just setting up new parks or preserves. Rethinking decades-old bad behaviours is also necessary when it comes to healthcare in order to actively and consciously reduce waste and pollution. It necessitates switching to more sustainable energy sources, such as installing new LED lighting and modernising power systems.

To reduce the number of overused and pointless treatments and tests, doctors must practise more mindfully. Additionally, it necessitates reconsidering our vending systems, supply chains, and a shift away from single-use products in favour of reusable ones whenever practical. Together, these simple, everyday changes will have a significant influence on lowering carbon emissions.

One healthcare organisation setting new benchmarks is Kaiser Permanente. They will become the first healthcare provider in the United States to be carbon neutral in 2020, which means they will emit no carbon at all. To put it into perspective, this reduction in carbon emissions was equal to removing 175,000 cars from our roads each year.

Additionally stepping up, CommonSpirit has promised to attain net-zero carbon gas emissions by 2040. Their environmental stewardship plan places an emphasis on implementing new, more energy-efficient technologies, collaborating with supply chain companies to cut emissions, and making investments in behaviours and policies that are good for the environment and the climate. Others in the healthcare industry can use this example as a model and endeavour to transform healthcare’s culture such that environmental stewardship is given priority.

We must simultaneously seek to collect accurate data that will help us better understand how the environment, shifting weather patterns, and climate affect our mental and physical health as well as the best ways to address these issues. Within the healthcare industry, it all begins with self-awareness, which is followed by deliberate action and response.

Given that many climate consequences are significant, diverse, and unevenly distributed to affect the most vulnerable, this is an exceedingly difficult endeavour that necessitates extensive, local data infrastructure and research. However, doing so enables more well-informed decarbonization activities and will encourage healthcare systems to more accurately evaluate the effects of climate change on public and private health.

To truly be sustainable, people must live in harmony with the environment and its resources. We must begin by creating a healthcare industry that is more ecologically conscious, accountable, responsible, and sustainable. Our patients’ and the public’s health are at stake. We must endeavour to hold the healthcare sector responsible for maintaining the health of our communities, just as we entrust our doctors and healthcare teams to maintain the health of our bodies. Fortunately, nature, our environment, and our communities are incredibly resilient with a little assistance. Furthermore, even a tiny investment in nature can have a big impact on the future health and happiness of society.

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