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Stop the talk and step up to the global crisis that is not Covid-19

Opinion piece from Stephen Mark, a founding surgeon of Forté Hospital.

We are in the grips of a global crisis and while our health system must be prepared for the onslaught of Covid-19, we can’t forget the other crisis that’s been described as ‘code red for humanity’.

In 2019 a report from global organisations Arup and Health Care Without Harm found healthcare is responsible for 4.4% of the world’s global net emissions – meaning if healthcare were a country, it would be the fifth-largest emitter on the planet. Ironic isn’t it, that an industry that exists to help people is causing significant harm.

The New Zealand government has issued a directive for all public hospitals to be carbon neutral by 2025. There’s one entity that already is. Forté Hospital in Christchurch is New Zealand’s first net carbon zero hospital.

Now, a disclaimer here. I am a member of Forté Hospital’s sustainability committee and am proud to be a small part of a big team dedicated to achieving net carbon zero status. I also have sustainability in my genes.

From a very young age, I recall my family protesting for the ‘Save Manapouri’ campaign, in home-made japara parkas. Both my parents have community service awards for their ‘green’ efforts, with dad awarded a knighthood. With that past inspiring me forward, it’s time to issue an environmental challenge to hospitals and health organisations around New Zealand and the world. Do more and do it now.

It’s not easy, especially as Covid-19 is derailing the focus on sustainability as increased infection control requires more disposables. So, we need to think smarter. Think harder. Be more innovative. Set clear goals and explicit targets. Question processes, re-look at systems and ask if there’s a better way for our people, our patients, and our planet. Often, the answer is yes.

Direct carbon emissions from hospitals come mainly from electricity use and waste. At Forté Hospital, better segregation of waste has resulted in a 47% reduction in medical hazardous waste requiring emission-producing heat treatment (2016 to 2021) and a 1.6 tonne reduction in waste to landfill (2019 to 2020). All single-use food packaging has been removed, medicine trays have been replaced with compostable alternatives, staff uniforms have been recycled and, by questioning what’s really required for individual surgeries, 3,300 fewer pairs of disposable knickers are going to landfill each year. Innovative lighting, heating and cooling systems have also seen electricity usage cut by 12% (2019 to 2021) despite increased throughput.

Further emissions reduction initiatives are underway, including using reusable sterilisation crates and a trial of reusable drapes for patient surgeries.

And patients remain at the heart of it all. Improved patient outcomes and greater hospital efficiency are vital to meeting emissions goals.

It’s a start but others, including our public health system, need to follow suit because if, as an industry, we don’t show true environmental leadership, our future and that of future generations is in the balance.

Maybe it’s time to dig out that home-made japara parka again.