Doctors are usually seen in clinics, hospitals, and other health facilities. Our job mainly involves treating patients and managing diseases in the communities. We are trained to tell a patient the nature of the disease, ways to treat the disease, and tips to prevent getting the disease. Our assistance and expertise are not usually sought in dealing with environmental concerns.
Moreover, there is a tendency for most health and medical professionals to overlook the harmful impacts of delivering and providing healthcare to the environment and how it can aggravate the ever-present problem of climate change. This, however, is not surprising as the correlation between healthcare delivery and climate change is not readily apparent.
How does performing a surgical operation, a medical procedure that can be life-saving in some cases, contribute to increasing global temperatures? How can providing hydration therapy for a dehydrated patient contribute to the existing problem of increasing plastic waste? Our medical and health training may need to further incorporate paradigms relating to how the environment and health affect one another.
The truth is that the impacts of climate change would have direct repercussions 0n public health. One of the most significant would be the increasing emergency room consults for exacerbated asthma attacks, especially among commuters due to exposure to air pollutants.
The question now stands: Should improvement of health outcomes be at the expense of the environment or vice versa? Is there a way where both issues are prioritized and what are the roles of the health personnel including doctors and other allied professionals in these concerns?
The direct link between healthcare delivery and environmental issues became more apparent in my practice as a doctor and a health researcher during the pandemic.
In partnership with an international environmental organization, we were tasked to determine the impacts of the pandemic on healthcare and the first issue that we looked at was healthcare waste management.
In March 2020, the world was put to a halt by a microscopic virus that claimed lives in the hundreds of thousands, and among the industries that were badly hit was the health industry. Hospitals were at full capacity, with many patients needing respirators or emergency life-saving interventions. Patients were rejected by overflowing hospitals. Health workers were seen sleeping on the floors and corridors of the hospitals, not minding whether it was safe or sanitary because of exhaustion.
Given that the nature of the virus is novel, protocols were shifted based on what was just established. We really didn’t know what to do with the virus or the sick patients and how we go about continuing operations despite the pandemic. This was evident right at the very start, particularly with healthcare waste management.
It is common practice for healthcare practitioners in the pre-pandemic era to don protection especially when health hazards are present. However, this was doubled or even tripled during COVID-19, when doctors, nurses, and other hospital staff had to wear personal protective equipment when seeing a patient. There was increased use of gloves in the hospital. Our study showed that there were considerably more gloves used than isolation gowns. Furthermore, hospitals shifted to using more plastic food containers to avoid cross-contamination or further spreading of the virus. As a result, more plastics are found in bins for infectious waste. This now becomes problematic, especially with the progress of campaigns related to minimizing plastic use and other environmental initiatives.
Prior to the pandemic, environmental organizations and the healthcare sector already working together to decrease the use of single-use plastics in healthcare facilities. But what should have been a step towards increasing endeavors for mitigating the impacts of healthcare on the environment was disrupted. Being brought back to square one, there is now a need to double the efforts in recouping what has been done in the past and progressing towards future environmental goals.
Going back to the question: Should improvement of health outcomes be at the expense of the environment or vice versa? Not necessarily. Healthcare delivery and environmental protection are not mutually exclusive issues. Initiatives to protect the environment generally improve public health outcomes. The environment should not be jeopardized in making populations healthier.
One of the lessons we learned from this pandemic is the need to integrate environmental sustainability in our efforts to make healthcare and the health system more resilient. As health professionals, what now is our role in ensuring this? As stewards of health, our role is to be able to make and keep our patients, our communities healthy, and that includes keeping our environment healthy as well.
Increasing awareness efforts to incorporate environmental sustainability in medical practice can be done by finding allies and supporters in professional societies. Legislation of health and environment-related policies is also essential for the success of these initiatives.
Ultimately, recognizing that our health is connected to the health of our environment is a step further in achieving a more resilient and sustainable world.
About the author
Dr. Ma. Via Jucille M. Roderos, MBA is a Climate Reality Leader, physician, sustainable health, and business professional. She finished Doctor of Medicine and Master’s in Business Administration at the Ateneo de Manila University. She also received her Bachelor of Science in Health Sciences from the same university. She has recently served as the chief operating officer of the Philippines’ first universal digital health marketplace, Alaga Health Inc., and the chief operating officer and co-founder of Experto PlayLabs International Consultancy Inc. She is the medical editor of Hello Doctor Philippines and she teaches global health and health policy in the Ateneo De Manila University. Concurrently, she is the incoming executive director for Alliance Improving Health Outcomes, Inc.