News & Media Opinion Pieces Hospitals set off on Environmental Path

Hospitals set off on Environmental Path

This article by Graeme Horton was published in Medical Observer on 3 October 2008. We republish it here for the benefit of our membbers who are not in General Practice and therefore do not receive the Medical Observer.

       Green corridors, green homes, green clinics… and now green hospitals! The next time you look you just might find that your local St Elsewhere’s has begun to take a long hard look at the impact it has on the environment and is making changes for the better.

This trend is by no means ubiquitous but a growing number of shining lights are leading the way. Often the proponents have not reluctantly bowed to external pressure; rather the change has come from within as health professionals and staff see opportunities to do things differently.

There are hospitals in Australia and overseas which are moving to employ a wide range of methods in order to reduce their use of non renewable energy, non recycled water and the burden of waste disposal. Measures include recycling of some chemicals and plastics and use of stormwater for gardens. Innovations include sourcing patient food from local organic suppliers and reducing heat island effects around buildings by using green spaces and reflective surfaces.

Dr Forbes McGain, an anaesthetist and intensive care physician is undertaking research into green hospitals with Dr Grant Blashki. Based at the Western Hospital in Melbourne, he has initiated an environmental committee and says “Some hospitals recycle very little waste, however there is enormous potential to recover plastics, cardboard and other recyclable materials without compromising infection control”.

The movement toward the greening of hospitals has the potential to develop a life of its own, as practices which are in line with environmental principles can bring direct improvements in conditions for both patients and staff.

Using natural lighting can save on energy bills, improve the health of workers, and may even speed patient recovery. Having an independent power source, such as solar panels, can maintain power supply during emergencies.

Hospitals can also enable staff to improve their fitness by walking, cycling and using public transport by supplying bicycle paths, storage racks, showers as well as annual bus passes and priority parking for car poolers.

As hospitals are among our biggest energy consuming institutions there are considerable advantages in forward planning. Those architects and managers working together on new hospitals such as the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne in which environmental priorities are incorporated in the location and planning should be applauded. Such initiatives need to be supported and encouraged by government, and many who work in private hospitals hoping for similar initiatives could do well to ask their CEOs about their plans for more environmentally sustainable facilities.

As they endeavour to look after the most acutely unwell of our patients in a context of budget restrictions and staff shortages, our hospitals already have a lot going on.

But this is part of the green movement, where forward thinking and change is found in a setting that at first glance seems an unlikely place to discover environmentalism.

It brings hope that our society may, after all, be able to adopt the widespread changes necessary if our health and wellbeing – and that of our children (most of who are born in these facilities) – is to be safeguarded.