It is vital that all sectors of society seriously consider sustainability and become environmentally conscious in the coming years. Recently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a damning report that put the magnitude of our climate crisis in perspective. Using a series of metrics that accurately record climate change, the IPCC report found that “human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean, and land.” and that “widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere, and biosphere have occurred”. Unless we change our practices soon, we’re all heading towards a future affected by irrevocable climate change.

How Health Care Benefit from Sustainable Practices

The healthcare industry provides a clear social good but does not escape criticism when it comes to sustainability efforts. In addition to the complex issue of single-use plastics, the health care sector accounts for 4.4% of all greenhouse gas emissions. This is particularly disturbing because a worsening climate spells disaster for global health and predictions estimate that an additional 250,000 deaths between 2030-2050 will be caused every year by climate change.

Clearly, the healthcare burden will be lessened if we take proactive approaches to climate change. As well as reducing deaths and illness, sustainability in healthcare will create a more efficient supply chain for those working in health care, ensure that more patients receive greater access to natural spaces, and will clean up the management of pharmaceutical disposal. The bottom line is also rosier in a green future: current estimates find that providers globally could save up to $15 billion over the next 10 years if they adopt sustainable practices.

What Steps Can Providers Take?

Providers are looking to establish more sustainable practices and may be able to secure government funding to help their efforts. While providers might want to look into large restructuring efforts and investments into high-tech solutions, there is one underutilized and simple initiative they can consider first: telehealth.

Telehealth, or telemedicine, is the utilization of electronic products (phones, laptops, tablets, etc) to provide healthcare services to patients. All patients need is a device with which they can access the internet, and setting up telemedicine alternatives can be fairly straightforward.

Telemedicine is convenient for patients—particularly those in rural areas, who usually have less access to quality health care. It saves time, lowers carbon emissions from driving, and can grant doctors more regular contact with patients. It is also a practical solution to our current pandemic situation, where limiting close contact continues to play a vital role in slowing the spread of the virus.

Although telehealth’s upsides are significant, there are a few potential barriers. Healthcare is often a collaborative effort meaning that, for telehealth to work efficiently, everyone involved in a patient’s care needs to be capable of leveraging new technology to collaborate effectively. This is potentially an issue as there are still plenty of folks who do not know how to utilize technology like Zoom but do need access to healthcare providers on a remote basis.

Several legal and regulatory barriers make the deployment of telehealth trickier. By and large, the medical field is—and should continue to be—regulated with patients’ privacy and wellbeing in mind. The good news is that states are slowly starting to adopt interstate compacts which allow doctors to practice across state lines, meaning we will see an increase in telehealth availability to meet patient demands.

Final Thoughts

All industries need to reconsider their approach towards climate change and sustainability. However, few sectors have as much to lose and gain in the fight against climate change. Failure to adopt sustainable practices will lead to excess deaths caused by pollution and climate events, while increased sustainability will actually improve healthcare services and make a positive contribution towards healthcare providers’ bottom lines. It will take creativity to imagine and produce environmentally conscious solutions, but collaborative work that utilizes telehealth services can help us get it done.