The shocking statistics were released at the session ‘Climate Crisis: Health’s Responsibility to Our Planet” at the HIMSS22 European Conference on Thursday (June 16).).
According to report of the public organization “Health without harm”, about 4.4% of the world’s net greenhouse gas emissions come from the healthcare sector, twice that of air travel. These emissions directly lead to global warming.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has called climate change “the biggest health risk of the century”. Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is estimated to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year.
Speakers at the session were: Ronald Lavater, Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Committee Member, International Hospital Federation, Geneva Center for Health Leadership, Switzerland; Nancy Jennings, Health Adviser and AMR Head of the UK EU Mission in Brussels, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Belgium; Timo Tyrväinen, Chief Economist, Climate Leaders Coalition, Finland; Dr Brigitte Seroussi, Director of Digital Health Ethics, DNS, French Ministry of Solidarity and Health, France; Isabelle Kumar, Former Euronews Anchor, Caregiver, Disability Rights Activist, President of Autisme, Ambition, Avenir, France
Timo Tyrväinen, chief economist at the Climate Leadership Coalition, told conference delegates that global temperatures had already risen by 1° Celsius. He talked about some of the ways climate change impacts global health, including weather-related natural disasters, food and water shortages, and rising sea levels that lead to mass migration. In addition, air pollution causes 3.3 million deaths around the world every year.
“You need to understand a very simple thing. The climate does not punish production, it punishes emissions,” Tyrväinen said. “Our task should be to move from dirty to clean production.”
The Digital Health Paradox
Dr. Brigitte Seroussi, Director of Digital Health Ethics, DNS, French Ministry of Solidarity and Health, joined the live conference to explain the “digital health paradox”.
“We know all the benefits of digital medical tools and services in terms of patient safety, quality of service and cost reduction,” said Dr. Serussi. “But on the other hand, we also know that digital health has an impact on environmental health.”
To achieve a zero carbon footprint, the French Ministry of Solidarity and Health worked to raise awareness among all participants in the system, including healthcare professionals, patients and software providers.
France has also created a system to promote ecodesign by measuring the sustainability of digital health tools. To be placed on the digital platform of patients of the country, Mont Espace Santeapplications must meet the threshold for two “green scores” based on criteria such as energy consumption.
“We must be actors in the decisions,” concluded Dr. Serussi. “We all need to protect our planet and rethink our real needs to develop sustainable digital health.”
Health workforce training
Ronald Lavater, CEO of the International Hospital Federation (IHF), said that during his more than 25-year career in hospital management, the role of hospital leader has not been sustainable in his mindset.
“We didn’t think about climate change,” Lavater continued. “We may have had a recycling program or solar panels on the roof, but really looking at how hospitals are impacting climate change and exacerbating the problem was not part of the training either at school or at work.”
In 2021, Health Care Without Harm produced a global roadmap outlining three ways hospitals can make improvements.
Actions hospitals can take to reduce their environmental footprint include reducing facility carbon emissions, decarbonizing the supply chain, and impacting the economy in ways such as purchasing sustainable hospital food.
“Hospitals contribute to climate change,” Lavater said. “At IHF, we understand that climate change is an important issue and high on the agenda of hospital administrators, which is why we have assembled a key team and formed the Geneva Center for Sustainability.”
The center has a vision of supporting hospitals to become leaders in sustainable development in society.
“We want C-Suite to raise awareness and give them the tools to communicate with their boards of directors, communicate with their employees, engage with their communities and reduce their carbon footprint,” Lavater said.
In addition to climate change, public health is facing the threat of antimicrobial resistance (AMR), which has been called “silent pandemic”.
Nancy Jennings, Health Adviser and head of the UK Mission to the EU on AMR, said AMR and climate change are linked and need to be approached in the same way.
AMR was associated with 1.2 million deaths and directly caused 4.9 million deaths worldwide in 2019, making it the third leading cause of death after heart disease and stroke.
“Bacteria will evolve to bypass antibiotics, which means that penicillin, for example, is less effective than it was two, five, 10 or 20 years ago,” Jennings explained.
The problem is largely caused by intensive farming practices in which animals are routinely treated with prophylactic antibiotics instead of veterinary care. These antibiotics then enter the food chain and ecosystem. Big Pharma is another culprit, with some industries dumping toxic waste, including antibiotics, into rivers.
So what can be done about the problem? There are no quick fixes, but Jennings’ final message to healthcare professionals is to think carefully before prescribing antibiotics and proactively educate patients about the problem of AMR.