Healthcare’s obligation to fight climate change

(BPT) - By Kees Wesdorp, Chief Business Leader, Precision Diagnosis at Philips

As we contemplate our planet's health on Earth Day, we are mindful of the unique set of challenges the healthcare industry faces in expanding access to care while developing more sustainable technology and systems. With much of the world still lacking access to quality care, our work is far from done.

But this important work comes at a high environmental cost. In the U.S. alone, 8.5% of all CO2 emissions stem from healthcare.[i] For healthcare organizations, implementing greener practices is not just a nicety, it's also a moral responsibility.

The magnitude of the challenge can be daunting. But there are effective steps healthcare organizations can take to incorporate climate-friendly improvements into their operations. At Philips, we've started this work by partnering with our customers and suppliers, and this is what we've learned.

Redefining the '3R's' for healthcare

The 3R's - reduce, reuse, recycle - are widely recognized environmental principles that have a profound relevance in the healthcare sector. Let's face it: there's a significant amount of waste in healthcare. Reducing inefficiencies, pursuing more precise diagnostic and treatment pathways, and reusing, remanufacturing, and responsibly recycling old medical equipment, are just a few ways that healthcare companies can make small changes with big impact.

First, we can address inefficiencies that not only waste money, time, and precious staff resources, but also energy and C02. For example, scheduling and communication glitches, low value diagnostic tests, and late or improper diagnoses all come with heavy human health and carbon costs. It's time to fix them.

Innovation has been the driving force for good in the healthcare industry, but it should not happen at the expense of the planet. While the idea of material reuse in healthcare is still gaining traction, it's clear that circular economy principles - upgrade, refurbish, remanufacture, and recycle - must become our new normal.

Going circular

According to a seminal study by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation[ii], materials extraction, supply, and the manufacturing of equipment account for 40-50% of global CO2 emissions. Every year, more than 100 billion tons of resources enter the economy, with just 8.6% being reused. Current levels of consumption are running at 1.7 times the resource capacity of the planet.

The good news is, environmental impact can be dramatically reduced by reclaiming products and responsibly repurposing them, or "closing the loop." Closing the loop can reduce the carbon footprint of equipment by 50-85% over its lifetime[iii]. That's a powerful incentive to change how healthcare approaches the supply chain.

As with many challenges, a shift in mindset is needed to make change. But healthcare companies and suppliers are uniquely positioned to take on this challenge. Philips, for example, has already taken steps in its design practices to remove waste and employ eco-friendly design principles. Examples include removing single-use disposables and hazardous and rare materials; eliminating a reliance on scarce natural resources, such as helium, in MRI technology; applying eco-friendly design principles we see in our personal lives (such as devices that 'sleep' when not in use or cars that power down when stopped) to high-energy-use medical equipment; and shifting to 100% carbon-neutral operations.

Rethinking healthcare from a net zero lens

The climate crisis can make us feel overwhelmed and at a loss about where to begin. Yet, there are immediate steps that can be taken to help improve care delivery and have a measurable impact on the environment. Here's where we are focusing our efforts:

  1. Greening operations and fostering a committed culture of circularity and sustainability
  2. Creating a network of sustainable vendors and business partners who uphold the same standards
  3. Building coalitions of experts and colleagues that want to team up to accelerate progress and breakthrough solutions
  4. Setting aggressive, measurable goals with deadlines and enlisting the entire organization (regardless of their position in the supply chain) to reach them
  5. Proactively measuring, monitoring, and improving performance

By setting goals and working with the right partners, all healthcare entities, both large and small, have the power to make sustainable healthcare a reality. The time is right for the healthcare industry to come together and make a commitment to change for a healthier future.

Interested in learning more? Hear from Philips CEO, Frans van Houten, and other business leaders and experts on how Philips is pioneering the circular economy for good. [Going circular - good for business, good for the planet | Philips].

[i] Victor J. Dzau et al., Decarbonizing the U.S. Health Sector - A Call to Action, N Engl J Med 2021; 385:2117-2119. (link)

[ii] Completing the picture: How the circular economy tackles climate change, The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2021 reprint. (link)

[iii] Accelerating the transition towards a net zero NHS, University of Exeter and Philips, 2022. (link)

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