How can we improve sustainability in our healthcare system?

The health industry needs to find ways to stop contributing to climate change


In 2009, The Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change concluded climate change to be the “biggest global health threat of the 21st century.”


While the role of the health sector is to prevent and cure disease, the delivery of health care – particularly within hospitals – inadvertently contributes to the very problem it’s trying to fix. Our current health service delivery system consumes a shocking amount of natural resources and generates significant amounts of waste. In short, it leaves a devastating environmental footprint that is harmful to public health.   


Earlier this month, the second Global Ideas Lab for this year directly addressed the health system’s contribution to climate change. Using human-centred design, a method for creative problem solving and innovation, we set out to design for sustainability in the health care system – specifically focusing on the pharmacy department at Footscray Hospital.  


Catherine O’Shea introduced the Lab, explaining her role as the Sustainability Officer at Western Health. A leader in this area, Catherine provided the context to sustainability in the healthcare system as it is currently. She took us through ten of the major environmental impacts of hospitals, including greenhouse gas emissions; energy use, water use, waste production, food and transportation. She went on to discuss some of the initiatives she has been involved in to limit such impacts.  


Grace Wong, a pharmacist at Footscray Hospital followed by taking us on an imaginary tour of the pharmacy department at Western Health. There were lots of bottles and containers, cardboard and plastics, 15 computers, printers, labels, different bins for different products and chemicals, piles of paper for faxing and plenty of packaging and wrapping.



Grace introducing us to the pharmacy.


Grace had put together a video that fully captured the sustainability concerns of staff in her department, ranging from excess wrapping and plastic on pharmaceutical products to the ethical implications of pharmaceutical trials and production in developing countries. Grace explained the daily operations that her and her team wish to redesign and as designers, it was our chance to empathise with her concerns.


Catherine and Grace’s talk emphasised that there is major room for improvement to make hospitals more sustainable. As someone that has had limited contact with hospitals, I was quite shocked at some of the existing practices (they still use fax machines!).



The human-centred design journey.


It came time to form smaller groups and begin the ideation stage. Paul and Michael from Growing Spaces lead us through the design thinking process. We brainstormed individually, noting the key things that stood out to each of us on sticky notes before reporting back to our respective teams. We grouped any recurring themes and patterns of thinking within the group.  


A diverse and very passionate audience meant for lots of ideas and great discussion. Issues included raising staff awareness, improving education and training making sustainable behaviours convenient and accessible in an already busy and demanding work environment. Monopolistic contracts with suppliers and middlemen, organisational culture and resistance to change, and regulation and reporting practices were also issues that my group spent time on.  



Idea mapping.


The conversations could have continued for hours however it was time to report back to the rest of the group. The first group had decided on forming a ‘Hospitals Initiative Group’, responsible for investigating the sustainability data within the hospital, including where there is large amounts of waste and how it might be minimised.


The second group decided to address the unnecessary packaging of health care products. The first step would include a regulatory review on packaging and manufacturing processes to investigate the context of the current regulations, such as triple packaging, and challenging their applicability to modern manufacturing processes.


To conclude the Lab we undertook a whole group evaluation and debrief. As a collective we acknowledged that the human-centred design approach helped to think differently about an often daunting and seemingly unsurmountable challenge. While some things will take a long time and a lot of resources to change, equally there are lots of low hanging fruit that can be done in a short space of time, without excessive amounts of resources.


Whilst climate change is a major threat to human health, this lab very much echoed the conclusion of the second Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change, that is; “tackling climate change could be the greatest health opportunity of the 21st century.”


Thank you to Catherine and Grace for their insights and passion for change and also to Paul and Michael for drawing out some great discussion and guiding us through the process.

tom wren, Labs Officer