What is sustainable healthcare?
We use a triple bottom line definition of sustainability, taking into account environmental, social and financial elements. Healthcare systems and processes can only be considered sustainable where all three elements (also termed ‘People, Planet and Profits’) intersect and are upheld.
Importance of environmental sustainability
Climate change is the greatest threat to public health in the 21st century, but provision of healthcare itself impacts on our environment. For example, the NHS generates around 22 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) each year in England, and 5.4% of net UK greenhouse gas emissions. The US healthcare industry generates over 1.7 million tonnes of plastic waste per year, and this is likely to rise given our increasing reliance on single-use plastics. The NHS is a major contributor to air pollution, responsible for 3.5% of all road travel in England.
Importance of social sustainability
Provision of healthcare also impacts on the lives of patients, their families, allied healthcare professionals, and those within the healthcare supply chain. The majority of the products we use within healthcare are manufactured overseas, and there are reports of widespread violations of labour rights in the manufacture of medical gloves, face masks, surgical instruments, and medical textiles.
Importance of financial sustainability
Healthcare spending has increased in line with an ageing population and medical advances. For health systems to remain financially viable requires efficient use of our resources and improved systems for delivery of care as well as an increased focus on disease prevention.