Health Sustainability | the 2 vital issues hindering a healthy world

Ellie's eye with planet earth laid over her iris

Human health is something that everybody has a personal stake in. For this reason, health sustainability is a topic that we should all be invested in.

What is Health Sustainability?

Since sustainability is the ability of something to last, health sustainability encompasses 2 main issues.

First, our health system must not impair the planet’s ability to last. 

This means making sure that the health system is environmentally sustainable. This is fairly straightforward but involves addressing things like medical waste, preventative medicine versus treatment, and more.

Quote by John Lewis that says “Humanity is the most important endangered species under threat from climate change and yet we flood our ecology with poisons and pollution.”

Second, issues that impair humans’ ability to last by jeopardizing their health must be addressed.

That means addressing practices that prevent overall health in humans. 

One such practice is tied directly to the first issue since harming the environment also harms human health.

A few other practices that harm human health involve social inequality and a disconnect between mental and physical health. 

Let’s examine each of these aspects in a little more detail.

1. A Sustainable Healthcare System

While there is certainly still room for improvement in the medical field, modern medicine truly has come a long way and is doing some really amazing work.

However, the price of this rapid progress is a system whose impact on the environment has ballooned out of control before the full consequences of this have been realized.

To be clear, I am not arguing that we erase progress in favor of returning to a past system that was less wasteful.

Instead, I am examining the following health sustainability issues with the thought in mind that we continue to use technology and progress to further refine medical innovations so that the healthcare system can help more people with less harm to the planet.

Emissions

One way that the medical field harms the environment is through emissions. 

Many parts of the medical system still run on fossil fuels, such as ambulances, the electricity that powers medical buildings, and the supply line of medical equipment as well as the food that is served in medical facilities.

This is an important issue to address, as the use of fossil fuels is linked to habitat destruction, pollution, and the emission of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide that fuel the climate crisis.

Globally, health care emissions account for almost 5% of total greenhouse gas emissions.

While that doesn’t sound like a huge number, it is pretty significant: If the global health sector were its own country, it would have the 5th highest carbon footprint.

Health sustainability quote by Simon Stevens that says “It is not enough for the National Health Service to treat the problems caused by air pollution and climate change, from asthma to heart attacks and strokes.  We need to play our part in tackling them at source.”

The UK’s National Health Service is the first in the world to acknowledge the importance of reducing their carbon footprint and is striving for zero emissions by 2045.

Hopefully more countries will soon join them in working further toward health sustainability.

Medical waste

One impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is that the problem of medical waste has become much more visible to the average person. While single-use PPE such as masks, gloves, gowns, and more have proliferated this year, they are far from the only examples of disposable medical equipment that is clogging our waste facilities.

Though single-use items may be best practice for infectious cases, there is an even bigger amount of disposable equipment that is being used when it doesn’t need to be. 

One hospital in the UK started reminding their medical practitioners to only use gloves when absolutely necessary (rather than as a replacement for hand-washing when washing babies or moving hospital beds). After a year, they had reduced their waste footprint by 21 metric tons on gloves alone.

Photoshopped picture of a sea turtle in a teacup against a beach full of plastic trash

Reducing the unnecessary use of disposable items is a really important step toward health sustainability, but what about recycling?

Obviously not everything can be recycled, but there are currently a lot of recyclables that medical professionals are sending straight to landfill because of a lack of understanding about what can be recycled.

In addition to the equipment that is disposed of after one use, many medications are also thrown away before being used at all for various reasons. Almost $3 billion worth of chemotherapy drugs are thrown out in the US each year because too much is packaged within each single-use vial.

Surgeries

When it comes to emissions and medical waste, surgeries are a huge medical component that have been highlighted for their large impact.

Operating rooms consume 3-6 times more energy than other parts of a hospital, which gives them a disproportionately larger carbon footprint.

Surgeries typically produce somewhere around a third of a hospital’s total waste.

Anesthetic gases produce significant emissions that are up to 2000 times stronger than carbon dioxide. (Injected anesthetics, on the other hand, have minimal impact.)

Obviously the solution is not to discourage people from undergoing lifesaving operations but rather to make sure that environmental solutions to the healthcare system take into account the fact that surgeries are a huge part of what makes the current system unsustainable.

Treatment (vs prevention)

Even if the above issues are addressed, it probably won’t be possible to completely eliminate healthcare’s emissions and waste, so another way to combat the problem is to reduce the burden on the healthcare system.

Many health conditions are due to diet and lifestyle factors, so educating would-be patients and encouraging healthy behaviors could go a long way in keeping people healthy and preventing them from adding to the impact of the healthcare system.

Still other conditions are due to other factors that are potentially preventable, but we’ll address some of those momentarily in the second section.

The bottom line for environmentally sustainable healthcare

It is clear that change is needed. While the healthcare system does need to expand to be able to care for parts of the population that are without medical assistance, it cannot afford to do so with the same model that has been used up to now.

Fortunately, this is an issue that is starting to get more of a spotlight. With organizations like Health Care Without Harm and Practice Greenhealth advocating for environmentally responsible healthcare, more countries may follow in the footsteps of the UK’s net-zero healthcare goals.

White cloth face mask on wooden background | health sustainability

2. A Sustainable Healthy System

On a larger level than a single doctor’s office or hospital’s footprint is the overall impact of systems that affect the health of individuals and communities.

Building a world in which it is possible for everyone to be healthy will naturally reduce the burden on the healthcare system and therefore reduce the emissions and waste we discussed in the last section.

As we know by now, most issues in today’s world are linked, and health is no different.

An environmentally healthy system

It’s no surprise that health is linked to the environment. In almost every case, something that is bad for the environment is also bad for humans.

Here are just a few examples of environmental destruction that hinders health sustainability.

Resource exploitation

Health effects start at the very source of obtaining resources such as fossil fuels, with miners suffering lung diseases and increased radiation found at fracking sites that can affect nearby communities, among other dangers.

Exploitation of other resources can lead to water shortages that can lead to life-threatening dehydration and deadly conditions in people who resort to consuming unsafe water, are unable to wash their hands properly, or who have to put themselves in harm’s way to obtain safe drinking water.

Pollution

Pollution is another very clear example of something that simultaneously hurts the environment and humans.

Some of the health effects of pollution include the following.

  • Asthma
  • Emphysema
  • COPD
  • Chronic bronchitis
  • Cholesterol issues
  • Pregnancy and childbirth complications
  • Breast cancer
  • Lung cancer
  • Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
  • Stroke
March for Science protest sign that says "Strokes don't care what your political viewpoint is."

Many times, these conditions can lead to a premature death.

In the EU, 1 out of every 8 deaths is linked to pollution.

Globally, outdoor air pollution kills more people than HIV and malaria combined, clocking in at more than 3 million people who succumb to an early death due to dirty air.

Emissions causing higher temperatures

In the last 2 decades, deaths related to heat in the 65+ population have increased by 50% (with almost 300,000 deaths in 2018 alone).

Warming temperatures have also expanded the areas that disease-carrying creatures such as mosquitos can inhabit, putting more people at risk for conditions such as malaria and dengue fever.

On a slightly different note, warming temperatures is one of the environmental issues that can harm crops, which can lead to health issues related to food security.

Pandemics

Researchers have identified that peat lands are a habitat that is at high risk of giving rise to more new diseases (having already been the origin of Ebola and HIV/AIDS).

As we know because of Covid-19, peat lands are far from the only habitat that can give rise to a new disease. Habitat exploitation and destruction in general bring a huge risk of introducing new infections to humans.

Other climate disasters

Pandemics are not the only climate disaster to affect human health. Other catastrophes such as floods and wildfires can damage human health as well as destroy the medical buildings or infrastructure that should be helping treat the health effects of these disasters.

These disasters can also disrupt health services by knocking out power and affecting supply chains. (Remember the medication shortage in 2017-2018 after Hurricane Maria wiped out the production facilities in Puerto Rico?)

Health benefits linked to nature exposure

Although environmental disasters can severely harm human health, embracing the environment may actually be a way to help with some health issues to take some burden off the healthcare system.

Sign in garden that says "dirt therapy" | soil degradation

New Zealand’s Ministry of Health has a well-established Green Prescription program where patients can participate in a local health and wellness group to improve their fitness and experience nature.

One region of Scotland has recently adopted this idea by prescribing activities such as hikes and birdwatching to help some of their patients.

The rest of the UK may soon be following in those footsteps as a new “green prescription” scheme is undergoing research there at the moment.

A socio-economically healthy system

Health is also linked to social issues and economic status.

One glaring example is the fact that race has huge implications for an individual’s health. In fact, the American Medical Association has labeled racism a public health crisis that causes “the overall health of the nation [to] suffer.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics has also taken a stance emphasizing the impact that racism has on kids’ health.

Historic bench in Cape Town, South Africa, that says "Non-whites only" | social sustainability

Racism is only one systematic injustice that impedes the overall health of humanity. Inequalities across the socio-economic spectrum impact different people’s quality of and access to healthcare. (For more detailed information, I have entire posts about social sustainability and eco-social sustainability.)

Mental health

This is an issue that is part of physical health and yet is still not as widely acknowledged. We cannot address health without looking at the brain.

There is a lot more than can be said about how important it is to address mental health, but that is probably a topic for another time.

I wanted to briefly mention it here to make it clear that mental health is not a fringe issue and is directly related to physical health and should therefore be part of health sustainability conversations.

The Takeaway

Obviously, the issues facing human health are complex, and the solutions must be comprehensive. 

However, we have had tools that allow the healthcare field to advance rapidly, and those same tools and brilliant minds are a good place to start in figuring out a path toward health sustainability that takes nature into consideration.

Getting corporations and governments on board with creating positive change will be another step in the right direction.

And of course, it is important for all of us to learn as much as we can about how all of these issues affect our own health and act accordingly.

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    Continuing the Conversation

    Was any of this information surprising to you? Are there more components of health sustainability that I didn’t mention? What are your takeaways for how health sustainability impacts you? Let me know in the comments below!

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