Today, there are reports that Dublin’s biggest hospital, and arguably the flagship of our health services, St. James’s is to be fined €200,000 because of the pollution it releases on us, it’s neighbours. Now, I have been an environmentalist since my teens, but working in the health services since my 20s, began to wonder: is it time for us to stop giving the health services a free pass on the environment just because it is on the one hand cash starved, and on the other hand so critical to our survival?For 20 years working in hospitals, I have tried to be just as conscientious a I am at home with regard to reducing, reusing and recycling of resources, birth in terms of trying to reduce my working carbon footprint as well as trying to be careful with the taxpayers money. However, every step of the way I have come up against barriers, both the attitudes of fellow staff and management or the pursuit of better hygiene (using disposable cups because of a fear of spreading infection… no, really!)

Last spring I left a job in a certain hospital after 16 years. I had thought that I had a bit of a reputation around trying to be sustainable, but the party I was thrown by the hospital was only one floor down from the hospital canteen, but there were only disposable paper cups, paper plates, plastic knives provided.

As the new year started, the Taoiseach, in the usual style of spinning ideas that don’t threaten his lifestyle and cronies, announced that single use plastics were being banned in the public and civil service. But, the health service has a long way to go, and that is as much about attitude as anything else.

Enough of the negative, I believe that we can and must turn the ship of the Irish health services around, and not only because the idea that we have to damage the environment to keep people alive doesn’t sound right. Remember that a damaged environment is in itself leads to more bad health, be that environmental toxins causing respiratory problems, cancers or the upheaval of climate change causing more stress and mental health problems.

We must also turn the ship around to avoid wasting more taxpayers money in the health services. Berwick & Co. in JAMA (linked here but requires login from a library or hospital account) estimate that of every $5 spent in US healthcare, $1 is wasted – could we be much better here?

The HSE has set up a National Sustainability Office as sustainability becomes an issue across health services worldwide due to the climate emergency, but does it gave teeth? At the same time, reducing our footprint can be every departments responsibility, as the Irish Times discuss here. Indeed, as we saw with the power of one a few years ago, it can be every individual within the health services responsibility.

We need to beef up the National Sustainability Office. It will need a significant increase in resources to allow it to drive culture change within the organisations that make up our health service, including those organisations that functions have been outsourced to.

In no particular order we need:

  • hospitals with solar panels on their roofs.
  • A deep retrofit of all buildings and and increase in the standard of new hospital buildings.
  • With the exception of ambulances (only until suitable electric vehicles can be developed) no new internal combustion vehicles should be purchased by the HSE.
  • Procurement and tendering must include Sustainability as a key factor in purchasing decisions, and this includes where functions like catering and waste management is being outsourced.
  • Hospital staff need to embrace cycling – management need to facilitate this by providing bike lockers in secure areas (many of our hospitals are located in the places they are needed most – close to social deprivation)
  • We need a plan for packaging waste and hospital waste streams in general. While some things need to be incinerated, there is much that does not.
  • We can start with small steps like using the search engine Ecosia instead of google to search

There are many other ideas which I will blog about here. Please feel free to comment below and I will investigate.