HealthPRO Canada News

December 11, 2023

Healthcare sector needs to reduce environmental harm as it heals

Image of Kendra Frey with the Hill Times logo and the HealthPRO Canada Sustainability logo
As published in The Hill Times December 11, 2023
By Kendra Frey, Vice President, Materials Management

Canada is fortunate to have one of the most highly regarded healthcare systems in the world when it comes to access to patient care, but it also has a lesser-known dark side.

We are unintentionally harming the planet while we are trying to heal patients. Hospitals and the supply chain that makes up our overall healthcare system cause significant pollution that has serious health impacts for many patients.

Our health sector is among the worst performers across the globe in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, coming in as the world’s third-highest polluter per capita, according to recent research.

The research found that healthcare is responsible for nearly five per cent of Canada’s total greenhouse gas emissions, as well as more than 200,000 tons of other pollutants, resulting in 23,000 years of life lost every year from disability or early death. Emissions tied to Canada’s health sector have roughly the equivalent carbon footprint of 514 coal-fired power plants.

The environmental pollution caused by our health sector leads to a chain reaction of public health consequences – as more people become ill because of climate change and environmental pollution, they require more treatment and put more pressure on an already-strained system, which also contributes to more pollution.

We need leadership, urgent policy action and innovative thinking from all levels of government and all stakeholders in the healthcare supply chain to reduce our environmental impact on the planet and the toll it takes on patients.

It can be daunting to try to tackle a problem as broad and pervasive as the pollution created by our healthcare system. But doing too little to fix it is no longer an option. The key is for all players in healthcare to start somewhere – to learn about the problem and begin taking action to reduce our impact. Every small step taken by an individual hospital or organization in the supply chain to go greener has a cumulative effect that will deliver greater collective benefits.

For example, consider the growing movement by many hospitals across the country to reduce usage of a common anesthetic gas – desflurane – that packs a powerful punch on climate change. A potent greenhouse gas, desflurane has a global warming potential 2,500 times higher than carbon dioxide and 40 to 50 times greater than that of sevoflurane, another common anesthetic gas.

Fortunately, more hospitals in all provinces and territories are shifting away from using the more harmful desflurane during surgical procedures in favour of sevoflurane. Leading the charge in decreased usage are Northwest Territories which has eliminated its use entirely, followed by Newfoundland with a decrease of 39 per cent, Ontario at 27 per cent and B.C. at 23 per cent.

Individual hospitals are also making important changes to improve their environmental sustainability.

Vancouver Coastal Health in BC is shrinking its environmental footprint by reducing waste nitrous oxide – commonly known as laughing gas – that escapes into the atmosphere. The greenhouse gas has a global warming impact 265 times higher than carbon dioxide when comparing the same volumes.

Vancouver Coastal Health recently shut down the central supply system for nitrous dioxide at Vancouver General Hospital, the largest hospital in its network. By replacing the leaky pipes with a small local supply system that is used only when required, Vancouver General has been able decrease greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of removing 57 cars from the road annually.

As Canada’s leader in healthcare procurement, HealthPRO Canada is committed to raising awareness about the health sector’s environmental impact among a network of more than 1,300 hospitals and healthcare facilities. We work with members and suppliers in our network to come up with innovative ways to reduce their individual impact on the environment and shrink our health system’s overall carbon footprint.

We have created a Sustainability Toolkit with a scorecard that allows members to measure supplier performance in three categories – environmental, economic and social – to help make more informed decisions that improve environmental sustainability.

Across the health sector, we must all do more and increase the level of urgency to become greener and fight climate change. The health of our planet and our patients depend on it.