It's time for green health

December 02, 2021
Dr. Maliha Hashmi
Dr. Maliha Hashmi

By Dr. Maliha Hashmi

In recent weeks the world’s focus has been on the environment, and mitigating climate change, with leaders convening in Glasgow, Scotland, for the United Nations Climate Change Conference – COP26.

Around 40,000 delegates from 200 countries registered for the conference that had produced commitments, including a pledge from our very own, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, to reach net-zero emissions by 2060.

With the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia a major oil producer, it is impressively taking major steps to scale up climate action and environmental protection through its recently launched Saudi Green Initiative to improve quality of life and protect future generations.

Commitments include a cooperative platform to implement a carbon circular economy; a regional center for climate change; and a regional community for carbon capture, use and storage, not to mention the pledge to plant 10 billion trees.

The world is clearly taking climate change seriously. While the pandemic is impacting us all, climate change poses a far greater threat to public health. Indeed the 2015 Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change described anthropogenic climate change as threatening to undermine the past 50 years of gains in public health.

Startlingly, our health and wellbeing are already impacted by the worsening natural environment and climate.

Severe weather — extreme temperatures in particular — is having an effect on mental health worldwide, for example, while rising air pollution can affect cardiovascular health, as well as resulting in complications like chronic asthma.

Despite the warning signs, the unprecedented scale of human impact worldwide goes on, unabated.

In my view, the way we have done things for so long is no longer tenable.

If we are to restore what has been environmentally degraded, we must be bold and reimagine entire industries, from food to chemicals to energy, and do so quickly and decisively.

As a leader in health, and a passionate change-maker, I am a firm believer that healthcare can catalyze this, as it has the power to transform people and markets above all other sectors.

But first, healthcare needs to change itself.

When we think about treating patients, the starting point by default is always healing the sick. I see healthcare differently. A “cradle to cradle” approach would see investment in healthy patients from the beginning of their life until the very end, as well as their future generations.

This would help prevent disease and ailments from escalating further. It’s a sustainable health model that would ensure not only healthier people but also a healthier planet, since there would be less dependency on resources.

It’s clear that urgent policy actions are needed.

In a recent open letter addressed to national leaders, organizations representing more than 46 million health professionals worldwide called for the integration of health and equity into climate policy to protect people’s health while also maximizing returns on investments.

Yet policy implementation requires human expertise. Healthcare professionals must be trained and armed with the right tools so that solutions are scaled across national and global healthcare networks.

Only a quarter of the 95 countries surveyed in 2021 WHO Health and Climate Change Global Survey Report, a snapshot of progress made in health and climate change by governments, have been able to fully implement national health and climate change plans or strategies fully.

As part of its capacity building, the WHO provides guidance, tools and training materials on climate change and health through its toolkit of climate change and health resources.

Opportunities must also be identified for healthcare to deliver economical, science-based solutions to environmental challenges through innovation. As Einstein once said, insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

One example of an economical solution is virtual care, a part of the digital healthcare everywhere concept which has taken off in the pandemic.

Virtual doctors, remote monitoring and telehealth can all play a part in treating patients (or person-centric health caring systems) at home, lessening the impact on the environment. Studies show that telemedicine reduces the carbon footprint through reducing transport-associated emissions (ranging between 0-70-372kg CO2e per consultation).

Hospitals must be more climate resistant meanwhile.

With extreme events, both pandemics and weather-related such as floods, fires and storms, expected to happen with greater regularity, the “climate-smart hospital” of the future can ensure that patients receive the care they need without interruption.

As the World Bank explained, climate-smart healthcare will stimulate the development and supply of sustainable products, while also preparing the sector for a future of known and unknown health-related climate hazards.

I think we can all agree that nature has a positive impact on mental health and wellbeing. Roof gardens and walls are increasingly visible these days (Singapore has shining examples of vertical gardens).

There is no more fitting location for a vertical garden than a hospital: gardens purify the air, help reduce noise and lower ambient temperature, and are much more pleasant for patients, visitors and staff alike (many of whom have faced tremendous stress in the pandemic). I believe hospitals should not be shaped as hospitals but should have the look, feel, smell, taste of a medical sanctuary or a wellbeing corner.

Gardens can produce healthy hospital food through indoor farming. A hospital farm will not only lessen the use of fossil fuels — it will also ensure high-quality organic fruit and vegetables without interruption.

A good example of this is the urban hospital Boston Medical Center. BMC has a 2,658 square foot rooftop garden with more than 25 crops that provides fresh, local produce to hospitalized patients and cafeterias. Honey is produced meanwhile from beehives. The farm doesn’t just increase green space — it reduces the hospital’s carbon footprint and energy use, including the energy needed to transport food.

On the energy theme, a recent study showed that wind turbines could save the NHS £2.6 million in healthcare costs over 10 years. Solar roof tiles and solar farms — as in the case of a hospital in England embarking on a 12-hectare scheme this month — can also help reduce energy bills.

There is one final consideration, and perhaps the most important.

Healthcare — and change — begins with oneself.

The pandemic has taught us all many lessons, one of which is to prioritize our own wellbeing. There is much we can do as individuals to care for ourselves and the environment around us.

With 2022 just around the corner (as surprising as it seems), let’s each personally resolve to adopt a healthier living next year and reduce our carbon footprint. The future of our planet depends on it.

— Dr Maliha Hashmi is a prominent female health leader in KSA. She is one of the Top Seven Most Talented Female Health Leaders of the MENA region.

— This article was originally published at Omnia health

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