The prescription for a greener healthcare sector: Preventive care and data


Experts at IBM tell GovInsider why it is time for the healthcare organisations to put sustainability at the forefront of their priorities, and how a preventive care model and data will help the healthcare sector reduce its carbon footprint.

A shift towards preventive care allows healthcare institutions to not just deliver better care to patients, but also reduce their carbon emissions. Image: Canva

Public health incidents like the Covid-19 pandemic were among the leading issues that kept healthcare and life sciences executives awake at night, according to a 2022 Global CEO study conducted by the IBM Institute for Business Value. Sustainability was a close second, with over half (51 per cent) of healthcare respondents responding that this was a major cause for concern for them. 


This is rather unsurprising, if one considers that healthcare and sustainability are not only two of the most pressing issues the globe is facing today, but are also highly intertwined. 


“Healthcare as an industry accounts for four per cent of global emissions. And if we as healthcare practitioners were a country, it would be the fifth largest country in terms of carbon footprint,” Kevin McGowan, Strategy and Integration Manager at IBM Ireland tells GovInsider. 


Under a business-as-usual scenario, the healthcare industry’s absolute global emissions will more than triple from a 2014 baseline to reach six gigatons a year by 2050, McGowan points out. 


Committing to low-carbon resilient healthcare systems is a matter of addressing inequities in global access to healthcare, according to McGowan. Vulnerable populations such as low-income countries in Southeast Asia are the first to face serious health adversities as a direct result of climate change, GovInsider previously reported. 


This manifests in the forms of higher annual premature deaths associated with outdoor and household air pollution – a population health crisis which could put further strains on healthcare systems. 


But the sector has two added challenges in the race to net zero, says McGowan. First, the pandemic has put climate targets on the backburner, setting many healthcare organisations back in charting out their climate targets. 


“Healthcare also has a huge added challenge of an ageing population and the growing prevalence of chronic diseases – which means we not only have to take strident efforts to stand still, but stop the acceleration to six gigatons a year with the rising load on health systems,” says McGowan. 


The shift to preventive care 


To green up health systems, healthcare organisations can take two key routes, he says. The first is redefining the default model of care. 


This means making a dedicated shift away from hospital-based, acute care models, and instead gravitating towards decentralised and preventive care. Under a preventive care model, patients spend more time self-monitoring their health from homes or going for routine health screenings, as opposed to being sent to the A&E when their symptoms go unchecked and are left to escalate. 


“When you take in the operations of a hospital – the heating, lighting, and everything that goes into the key infrastructures of an acute care model, it would absolutely continue to barrel us towards six gigatons of emissions per year,” says McGowan. 


The Irish government, for instance, found that if this shift is not made, they would have to build at least 11 new 400-bed hospitals between now and 2031. Countries like Singapore have already taken the steps to reorganise care delivery by building up preventive and community-based care capacities. 


Many have already started to look at what they can virtualise alongside the shift to preventive care, he says. For instance, technologies already exist for remotely monitoring patients to enhance population health analytics, or scheduling annual foot and eye exams to diabetic patients. 


These solutions are a two-for-one – they reduce emissions and deliver better care to patients. “Making sure that patients are not required to do emission-heavy activities such as travelling back and forth from their homes, or staying in energy-intensive hospitals, also reduces the need for acute care,” says McGowan. 


Healthy data, healthy planet 


The second key route to greening up healthcare is through data, according to McGowan. 


Currently, the lion’s share of the healthcare industry’s emissions (71 per cent) are primarily derived from its supply chain, otherwise termed as Scope 3 emissions. 


“Supply chain emissions in healthcare could include things like transporting patients to and from hospitals, the in-hospital meals provided to patients, the energy used for doing MRI scans, and even the building materials required for building and expanding new hospitals,” McGowan explains. One MRI scan alone produces about 17.5 kg of carbon dioxide – the equivalent of driving coast-to-coast in Singapore almost three full times.


The healthcare industry hence needs to change at the operational level to cut most of their emissions. This could mean switching to renewable electricity, investing in zero emissions building infrastructure, sourcing for carbon-neutral or sustainably sourced patient meals, or cutting patient trips, says McGowan. 


But they cannot do so without first understanding their carbon footprint. Data not only helps healthcare organisations chart a clear roadmap towards net zero, but also helps hold them accountable for their milestones. 


“They will have the data to know if they are doing a good job at sustainability or not. That is key to making sure every partner in the healthcare supply chain is working towards one sustainability transformation roadmap,” Heather Fraser, Global Life Sciences and Healthcare Lead at IBM Institute for Business Value tells GovInsider. 


Using the IBM Envisi ESG Suite, a data analytics tool that helps organisations manage their ESG data. For example an Australian diversified property and logistics group reduced emissions by up to 82 per cent from a 2005 baseline. 


Healthcare organisations can also make use of the same tools to green up through digitalisation – and some have already done so. For instance, an Australian healthcare provder was in danger of falling foul of the Australian government’s new climate regulations. 


“This provider was using many legacy systems, such as paper-based administration, pagers and multiple mobile phone providers, and a ticket system for responding to service requests. They basically lacked any qualitative data to inform any decisions that they were going to make, and data that was available was not centralised,” says Fraser. 


By replacing around 400 of their major legacy processes with digital equivalents, many duplicated efforts that generated unnecessary emissions were identified and eliminated. 


While the pandemic could have derailed a digitalisation project like this, it actually helped build resilience into the new system. “They knew that if they were able to deal with the added load of the pandemic while building that system, it would be suitable for dealing with their regular healthcare loads,” Fraser shares. 


All in all, healthcare organisations cannot do it on their own, she says. The road towards more sustainable healthcare systems requires the buy-in of doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and even patients themselves. “It starts at the top, but we are all part of the system helping the healthcare industry meet its sustainability goals.”