Welcome to the blog of the course and textbook Facing up to global warming: What is going on and what you can do about it. This course is run by Professor Nick Gray of the Trinity Centre for the Environment at Trinity College Dublin.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Is Healthcare Exempt From Environmental Care?

Those who preach that ‘the power of one’ will save our planet and allow us to coexist in a sustainable manner are right: If every individual made a significant effort to turn off lights, to conserve fuel and to reduce waste, each minute action would have a cumulative effect and we could prosper sustainably. However, I feel there is an over-emphasis being placed on small actions and that large siphons of the country’s resources, such as the health sector, are, to a certain extent, being disregarded, sidelined or taken for granted.
           
Last summer, I was diagnosed with a systemic autoimmune disease and, during my stay in the hospital; I underwent two X-rays, one MRI, one CT scan, an ECG and numerous blood tests. Finally, the conclusion was reached that I had sarcoidosis. My mother also has sarcoid. Before any test took place, identification of identical symptoms could have indicated I have the same, genetically linked, disease. In hindsight, I cannot help wonder if all the tests were truly necessary? Helium, supplies of which are critically low, is essential for MRI machines. Did I really need the MRI scan to confirm something we already suspected? It’s a frightening reality that, in the near future, an MRI may not be an option for those that genuinely need such an invaluable diagnostic tool. X-ray, MRI and CT scans also require a substantial amount of energy to power. These key diagnostic tools are clearly invaluable to hospitals, however, strides could be taken to supply alternative, more energy efficient options.
           
During my stay on the ward, I realized lights remained on throughout the night and the heating was constantly on. I realize it’s important to maintain a comfortable ambient temperature, however it was July and much of the time the windows were opened, as the heating was stifling. Up to 70% of the expenses of a hospital comprise heating and lighting. Perhaps, by making smart decisions and incorporating a more environmentally friendly ethos, hospitals could cut down on both their expenses and carbon footprint.
           
Furthermore, when I received my prescription, I could not understand why so much packaging was ‘necessary’. Of course it is imperative to ensure medication is sterile, desiccated and airtight. However, I received several large, colourful, cardboard boxes, half-filled with blister packs: plastic packaging with foil laminates that are practically impossible to recycle. Was it necessary to house the sterile packs in a large, aesthetically pleasing box? Would it not be less wasteful to minimize packaging?
           
I also feel the quantity of medication produced needs to be more accurately monitored to avoid excessive and unnecessary waste. In Wales alone, over 250 tonnes of out of date or surplus medication amounts each year. It seems heedless to manufacture such an excess of medication, which must undergo costly and elaborate methods of disposal. That’s not including the large proportion of medication that is improperly disposed of, which impacts the environment by entering and contaminating water. Recent reports from India indicate that levels of antibiotic in the surface water surrounding a certain drug factory were actually higher than the levels of drug found in patients undergoing treatment!
           
I truly believe we cannot let any sector be exempt from responsibility for the environment, even one as invaluable to society as healthcare. If we are to have any hope of achieving our environmental goals, the greatest contributors to energy expenditure must be addressed and made aware of the importance of adopting a new attitude. In 2009, the carbon footprint of the US healthcare sector was estimated to be 546 million metric tonnes CO2e per year. We need to work together, with the health industry, to mitigate our global environmental crisis.

Áine O’Toole 

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