The Role of Healthcare in Achieving a Sustainable Future

Tristan Watkins

12 Nov 2021

How can healthcare join the Green Revolution?

#Sustainability & #ClimateChange. Topics which are at the forefront of debate in so many industries, but which get little attention within healthcare. Surgery, especially, is seen as a (financially and physically) resource-heavy endeavour, and the waste it produces is accepted as an inevitable by-product of saving lives.

The numbers are staggering. Across numerous peer-reviewed publications, researchers have quantified the impact of operating theatres to be over 5,000 tonnes of CO2/year in a single hospital- not including waste. This means 6.5 million tonnes of CO2/year emitted in the UK alone. In addition to this, a single surgery creates up to 16kg of solid waste (50% of which is bio-hazardous and requires special procedures for disposal)- there were 4.7 million major surgeries in the UK in 2019. Figures to ascertain the environmental impact of this disposable equipment are difficult to come by, but just providing the surgical team's masks for a single procedure is estimated at 0.5kg/CO2.

This is why, when a viable alternative to surgery becomes available, it should be assessed in context of its environmental impact in addition to the traditional financial considerations. This is a practice that still needs to become established in all healthcare systems across the world.

An alternative to a single type of surgical procedure, therefore, has the potential to reduce CO2 emissions from healthcare by the equivalent of taking 90,000 cars off the road every year. That's a half of all cars in Oxfordshire! In addition to saving around 15,000 tonnes of solid waste per year.

Progress within Advanced Therapies, such as MICA Biosystems' stem cell therapy, promise a change from a surgical procedure to an out-patient injection in some therapy areas. This has obvious and profound benefits for the patients and the NHS in its own right, but the positive impact on the environment shouldn't be overlooked.

To quote a BBC article: "Given the health risks of air pollution, climate change and plastic waste, cleaning up healthcare could in fact turn out to be an opportunity to save many more lives.".

We now have an opportunity to increase the maximum benefit of an outcome of surgery. No longer is this capped at 100% (the surgery saved or bettered the life of the patient on the table) but could in fact be >100% (the surgery saved or bettered the life of the patient and the people & communities which would otherwise be negatively affected).