Healthcare is one of the fastest-growing industries in the world, but with this ballooning growth comes enormous environmental impacts. Already the industry is responsible for 4-5% percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and without clear and decisive action on sustainability, this figure will grow in lockstep with the industry’s expansion.
The global pandemic significantly exacerbated the industry’s already existing waste problem. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Covid-19-related healthcare waste has put a “tremendous strain” on waste management systems, threatening both human and environmental health; experts predict that its waste will continue to harm wildlife for years to come.
This level of waste is symptomatic of the ‘take-make-dispose’ linear economy model employed in healthcare. However, with a growing and ageing population, longer life expectancy, and increasing incidences of chronic disease, producing an endless stream of waste from this resource-intensive approach is not sustainable. Yet, for many in the industry, this approach is believed to be unavoidable.
A huge mindset shift is required here, and that’s no small feat, considering that currently, the global economy is only 7.2% circular, dropping from 9.1% in 2018. But the impact of adopting a circular economy in the industry would lead to huge emissions savings, far less waste, and create a more resilient healthcare system overall. Indeed, it’s pertinent to note that 85% of medical waste is non-hazardous, within which there is huge potential for circularity.
Fortunately, companies within the industry are beginning to adapt. Leading health technology company Philips, for example, is spearheading the industry’s transition to circular. Last year, for example, circular revenue accounted for 18% of company sales, and it improved the circularity of its waste streams to 91% by recycling, reusing, or reducing waste. Likewise, in 2022, in refurbishing MR and CT systems, it reused 79% of material weight from returned systems, reducing the need for virgin materials.
Indeed, this demonstrates how and why circularity must be embedded right from the beginning of a product’s design phase through to its end-of-life, where effective waste management can see it refurbished, repurposed, and reused.
Healthcare decarbonisation requires alignment across the supply chain. It’s a mammoth task that needs to be informed by data, supported by education, and result in impactful action, and companies can’t get there alone. To assist healthcare leaders in meeting their sustainability goals, Schneider Electric developed a three-step decarbonisation roadmap: ‘strategise, digitise, decarbonise’. According to Amel Chadli, MEA Digital Energy and Software VP, Schneider Electric, this approach enables healthcare decision-makers to “make progress” on their sustainability journey without compromising patient safety.
Further, discussing another of the company’s projects promoting sustainability, Chadli shared Schneider Electric’s EcoStruxure for Healthcare Platform. “To improve energy efficiency, we recently entered into a partnership with Microsoft and Emirates Health Services to launch a digital twin for hospitals. Our EcoStruxure for Healthcare platform is designed to enhance sustainability, resiliency, efficiency, and people-centricity. More importantly, the technology shows medical experts that the tools to cut energy consumption and ensure patient wellbeing already exist,” she said.
Of course, like other industries, the health industry’s Scope 3 emissions account for most of its emissions at 71%. Scope 3 is one of the hardest metrics to decarbonise, requiring cooperation and collaboration across the supply chain. Philips explained how it’s taking on the task: “We engage with our suppliers to reduce their emissions as part of our Supplier Sustainability Program,” said Vincenzo Ventricelli, CEO of Philips Middle East, Türkiye and Africa (META).
Ventricelli shared that in 2021, Philips announced its ambition to have at least 50% of its suppliers (based on spend) committed to science-based targets for carbon reduction by 2025, and by year-end 2022, already 41% of suppliers had committed.
Alongside making data-informed decisions and working with the wider supply chain, innovation in the industry is also imperative and can help facilitate higher-quality care delivery, greater efficiency, and less waste throughout the value chain.
As Chadli explained, what is of prime importance now is that the industry adapts to the changing world around us. At Philips, the company is adapting by creating EcoDesigned products. Ventricelli explained that the company aims to design all its new products and services in line with its EcoDesign requirements by 2025, a portfolio that focuses on using recycled plastics and bio-based materials in its healthcare technology solutions.
And this kind of innovation can also conserve scarce resources. The Philips MR 5300, with its BlueSeal magnet technology, for example, has allowed radiology departments to “massively reduce” the need for scarce helium gas. Having installed over 600 units globally, MRI scanners equipped with the technology have saved over 1,000,000 litres of helium since 2018.
 Total helium saved compared to conventional, helium-cooled scanners across both production and operations since 2018 = 1,038,361, based on LV supply 2022
According to Philips Health Trends Research, 82% of UAE residents believe sustainability should be a priority for healthcare companies. As Vincenzo Ventricelli noted, this highlights the importance of sustainable business practices and the need for healthcare leaders to achieve sustainable healthcare. However, while individual companies in the industry must mobilise, what rings loud and clear is that collaboration is required to achieve a net-zero healthcare sector.
“Active collaboration among organisations, civil society, and governments is crucial to develop a clear roadmap for action,” said Ventricelli. “We need innovative digital solutions, scalable business and financing models, and purposeful partnerships.”
According to Ventricelli, by leveraging these factors, we can expand access to equitable healthcare while reducing the healthcare sector’s impact on the planet. Further, he highlighted that COP28 is the “perfect platform” to drive action and said the conclusion of the first Global Stocktake will allow different parties to “identify the challenges and gaps in progress and work together to agree on opportunities and solutions to bridge the gaps.”
While it’s true the healthcare sector is beginning to shift its priorities and approaches, to limit global heating and restore our planet’s health, this change needs to speed up and scale. Healthcare and climate change are deeply interlinked, and the industry has a key role to play in tackling the climate crisis; it must act now to become part of the solution rather than the problem.