Climate change | What’s it got to do with healthcare science?

It sometimes seems like the only two things people were talking about in 2019 was Brexit and climate change. And since I can’t do anything about Brexit, and quite frankly, am sick of discussing it, I felt that we could start the year by talking about the other hot (literally) topic: the climate change crisis- and the role healthcare scientists have played in it. Whether your New Year’s resolution is to reduce your carbon footprint, live more sustainably or neither of those things I hope you give this post a chance to find out a little more about the impact of healthcare on the environment! So, what do healthcare scientists have to do with climate change? And even if we are contributing- surely at least the work we do is helping people so it’s worth the small environmental impact?! 

Well, I would say you’re entirely justified in that response; there are worse industries with worse environmental impacts than healthcare. But, according to this Guardian report, if healthcare were a country- it would be the world’s fifth largest emitter. I would argue that knowing what we do about climate change, it would be irresponsible of us to not understand and acknowledge this impact and act if we can. Although you should still consider making changes in your personal life, this post is more to make you think about something that we’re not often – or ever – asked to think about in healthcare science (yet!). As healthcare science trainees, some of us are going to be future healthcare science leaders, and I can’t stress enough how important I think it is that the people in charge are aware of the environmental impact of the decisions they make.

It’s safe to say that sustainability hasn’t always been at the forefront of people’s minds when you ask the question “what are the biggest challenges currently faced by the NHS?”. Rising demand, an ageing population, economic pressures, under-staffing etc. – now those are things everyone knows and talks about. But sustainability is also a problem that is bigger than a single organisation, because if we don’t get it right, we will have far greater worries than the NHS. 

One of my friends, Celia, created an entertaining and really informative video last year that explains the link between climate change and human health, so actually- sustainability is more closely tied to the other issues I mentioned than you would initially imagine. The video does focus on Canadian examples, but there’s no doubt that this is a worldwide phenomenon and has become particularly obvious in Australia over the past couple of months with their continuous wildfires- so definitely worth giving it a watch:

There was also a report published last year by the Lancet which outlines the impact of climate change on people’s health at all stages of life, from childhood to old age, globally. Not only is climate change having an impact on human health, therefore adding extra pressures on the NHS, exacerbating the issues of an already stretched workforce, but being more sustainable on the whole is likely to have a positive economic impact for the NHS (simple things like making sure lights and computers are switched off overnight, minimising the amount of consumables we use and reducing the amount of printing we do) as well as saving the planet!

Healthcare, as a whole, is responsible for 4.4% of global carbon emissions. The NHS is worse than average, globally- contributing 5.4% of the UKs total CO2 emissions. This comes down to individual perception, but to me, that seems like a lot- especially considering in the UK, aviation contributes only 1.1% more to the national carbon footprint. The NHS poses a bizarre juxtaposition in the sense that the whole point of it is to keep the population healthy, but many of its actions, through its carbon footprint are adversely affecting the population. This webinar goes into more detail about the breakdown of the carbon footprint of the NHS and shares some interesting statistics about that juxtaposition, including the 40,000 premature deaths in the UK due to air pollution but yet the NHS’s responsibility for 5% of all journeys.

It paints a pretty bleak picture; a vicious cycle, if you will: the more carbon we emit -> the more the climate changes -> more people get ill -> more people need care and treatment -> greater energy demands on the NHS -> more carbon emitted. So how is the NHS supposed to reduce its carbon emission while maintaining quality of care and increasing the quantity of patients it treats? Not an easy job, but healthcare scientists didn’t sign up for an “easy job”. While healthcare scientists are responsible for diagnostics and treatment of patients, we also have an aspect of new test/treatment development and implementation in our job descriptions. This is the area of our jobs we need to be thinking about sustainability and making it a priority in decision-making. 

Up until recently, I must admit, I thought- okay, healthcare science is contributing to climate change, but I’m a bioinformatician, I turn my computer off at the end of the day, I’m not using plastic consumables or doing loads of printing. I felt pretty smug in the thought that my contribution to the healthcare science carbon footprint is quite small. But the truth is, it’s not, and it’s only going to get worse unless we do something about it. And this realisation came from something I saw on twitter. There’s no question a lot of work we do in bioinformatics can use a large amount of computing power. And the demand for this analysis is growing; the computing resources required to do this have got to be powered by something and I would hesitate to assume that it’s clean energy.

Fortunately, the silver lining is that this is being recognised and people are starting to talk about it, which is the first step to addressing it. I attended a computing conference in Australia and more than once the impact on the environment of high performance computing was brought up. It was great to hear about this and I would love to hear it being discussed in the UK. 

The reason I’m saying all this is because the biggest carbon footprints might not be immediately obvious to you in your specialism. We don’t have a great big hunking computer chugging away all day, every day in our office reminding me of the amount of energy my profession actually requires. So you may need to do some research or just look a little bit deeper to find the worst culprits.

On a more positive note there are examples of greener alternatives already being implemented in some areas: inhalers, for example, where the use of a greener alternative that doesn’t require the use of hydrofluorocarbons (powerful greenhouse gases!) is being encouraged by NICE when appropriate for the patient.

I hope this article gives you some food for thought, I don’t have the answers, but reducing it’s carbon footprint is a priority for the NHS, so it’s something we should all be talking about and helping to achieve.

Author: Jes

I am a trainee clinical bioinformatician working at the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Foundation Trust. I am passionate about increasing awareness and discussion about healthcare science and particularly the routes into the field.

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