As climate change threatens the health of the planet — and everyone living on it — health care leaders are beginning to taking notice. As well they should: the health care industry is one of the world’s biggest sources of carbon emissions.
According to the Future Health Index 2022 report published in June by Philips, the company I work for, in 2021 only 4% of health care leaders worldwide reported that they were prioritizing environmental sustainability. A year later, that number has jumped to 24%, a nearly seven-fold increase. These leaders understand that, as an industry, health care systems, health technology companies, and other stakeholders have a responsibility to act.
This imperative is also reflected in major government initiatives, such as the National Academy of Medicine’s Action Collaborative on Decarbonizing the U.S. Health Sector.
What’s less clear to many is how to take action. But that does not mean that there is no path forward.
Working together, customers, peers, and partners across the value chain can reduce this industry’s collective carbon emissions, leaving a healthier planet and more resilient and sustainable health care industry for generations to come.
Getting serious about sustainable use of energy and materials
The world’s health care systems account for more than 4% of global CO2 emissions — more than the aviation or shipping sectors. Hospitals have the highest energy intensity of all publicly funded buildings, and emit 2.5 times more greenhouse gases than commercial buildings. In the United States, alone, hospitals also produce nearly 6 million tons of waste each year. The responsible and sustainable use of energy and materials is key to reducing health care’s carbon emissions.
Switching to renewable energy can have a major impact on large-scale, energy-intensive operations. Collaborating with other health systems, suppliers, and industry partners to offer the necessary scale can also greatly influence operations. For instance, virtual power purchase agreements, applying green procurement criteria when buying medical equipment, and investing in innovation that involves circular action — recycling, refurbishing, and remanufacturing — are all gaining popularity in the health care industry worldwide.
The energy consumption of medical equipment presents another opportunity for change. In my company, customer use of our products accounts for around 80% of Philips’ total environmental impact. That’s why we developed EcoDesign principles to reduce the energy consumption of our products, something that every company should be doing.
Circularity is central to maximizing the value from the energy needed to create products, reduce waste, and, by extension, decarbonize health care. Several options are available to hospitals to extend the lifetime value, capabilities, and usability of their existing installed systems. One of these is adopting “as-a-service” models.
These models work like this: Instead of buying physical equipment outright, hospitals and health systems buy access to equipment. This offers functionality without significant upfront capital expenditure. The as-a-service model allows for scaling their investment and equipment usage up or down to fit their growing or diminishing needs. When they no longer need the services, or upgrades become available, the vendor is able to reuse and recycle the products so they don’t end up in landfills prematurely.
When hospitals and health systems choose to adopt as-a-service models, they can extend lifetime resource efficiency and implement smart digital solutions that can contribute to reduced carbon emissions by health care by rolling out updates remotely to existing equipment. New advancements even allow for the use of AI to support predictive maintenance. The result? Longer lifetime, increased workflow efficiencies and utilization, and lower environmental impact. For example, an Amazon Web Services study showed that 84% less power is consumed when customers use large, centralized cloud-based data centers instead of on-premises infrastructure.
Going full circle — recyclability, refurbishment and eco design
Recyclability — including designing for disassembly — is critical to reduce the environmental impact of products at the ends of their lives and reduce the costs of recycling. This is one of the areas Philips focuses on with its EcoDesign approach. With many consumers keen to break the take-make-dispose cycle, refurbishment and recovery of parts offer a choice of pre-owned systems that have been thoroughly refurbished, upgraded, and quality-tested. In this way, customers can benefit from affordable, state-of-the art technology that requires less energy and helps improve the sustainability of the health care industry.
When refurbishment or remanufacturing is no longer an option, responsible repurposing comes next. By recovering valuable parts, manufacturers can service older systems, maximizing lifetime value. When repurposing is no longer viable, the final step is recycling parts back to raw materials via local recycling networks.
Going digital to deliver less resource-intensive care
Virtual support, digital tools, and software enable companies to “dematerialize,” delivering maximum value with minimum resources. This can help drive a shift from resource-intensive clinical facilities to lower-cost community settings and into the home — offering more people access to quality care.
Tools, software, and services that enable virtual care can eliminate the need for related travel and its associated CO2 emissions. In fact, one large health system in the Pacific Northwest reported that the increase in its telehealth visits between 2019 and 2020 helped reduce travel-related greenhouse gas emissions by 45%.
Optimized care pathways can help to reduce environmental burden
In addition to the responsible and sustainable use of energy and materials, health care must further optimize care pathways to help reduce the environmental impact of treatment. Today, patient journeys are often arduous, with multiple separate appointments for diagnosis, treatment and monitoring. And with the increasing number of comorbidities in aging populations, this is frequently replicated across several specialties.
While reducing the health care industry’s environmental footprint is imperative, it is also vital to improve the care system by investing in prevention, first-time-right diagnosis, minimally invasive therapies, and aftercare to help improve outcomes for patients and, by reducing the amount of resources needed to provide care over time, the environment.
Sustainable supply chains
Organizations’ supply chain operations often account for more than 90% of their greenhouse gas emissions. To reduce carbon emissions from health care, leaders must take an end-to-end view of the value chain, making procurement a cornerstone of sustainability efforts and incentivizing their suppliers to work as partners.
This is difficult to accomplish all at once, but taking an industry benchmark approach can help. In Philips’ supplier sustainability program, for example, 28% of our suppliers (based on spend) have committed to science-based targets for carbon reduction, and that will rise to at least 50% by 2025. Vendors and providers can contribute to the success of these kinds of programs by working directly with suppliers and incentivizing them to adopt and meet such targets, leading to a several-fold improvement in decarbonization when compared with simply lowering health tech companies’ CO2 emissions.
Leveraging health technology to take action
Embracing sustainability across the health care value chain and in every aspect of business is becoming more and more critical. All stakeholders need to leverage technological innovations now to decarbonize health care.
Health technology companies cannot make the necessary changes in isolation. They need to work with care providers, practitioners, knowledge partners, and suppliers. With collective expertise, sustainable practices can be combined with safe, efficient, and effective methods of care to deliver better outcomes at lower costs using less energy and materials and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Now is the time to connect the dots and align, because taking better care of the planet will enable taking better care of people.
Kees Wesdorp is the chief business leader for precision diagnosis at Philips.