What is sustainability in health care?
As I am graduating high school this year, I thought it would be interesting to think more closely about how sustainability can be incorporated into the healthcare industry. And I do not mean the manufacturing aspect, dealing with circular economy components related to material use and the manufacturing process. While the production process is certainly important, I am referring to the concept of incorporating elements of sustainability into sustainable health.
If we try to find a definition of sustainability, one common theme takes an ecological approach, discussing the ability of a system to be diverse and also productive, where each member of the system has a job, and contributes to the health of the entire system. When we apply this to environmental issues, we can think about manufacturing products that only use the materials that are needed, and the ‘waste’ can become part of another system. A healthy manufacturing system will find a use for all of the materials, while minimizing waste. An additional component of sustainable industrial activity focuses on preserving resources for future generations. This way, the industrial process acts like a natural ecosystem, where everything is used. Applying sustainability directly to human health is a little more difficult, but it is important as the population continues to increase.
When thinking about ‘human health sustainability’, if we relate to the environmental sustainability examples, we can think about human health as a platform for:
Maintaining and improving health throughout the lifespan
Incorporating new tools and technologies to improve nutrition
Not only look at how improved healthcare for the individual but also for larger populations
Identifying business opportunities where human and environmental health intersect. This can be in preventative health, food and nutrition, and treatment.
With an emphasis on health sustainability, it will be important for healthcare related companies to think about how they can contribute to sustainable health, as well as how they can build their business around the idea. Most companies have some sort of employee wellness programs, which encourage workers to participate in activities that encourage better health and disease prevention. Examples might include onsite gyms, fitness competitions to encourage participation, and financial incentives for active employees. Their thought is that healthy workers are more productive workers, and in the process, there is less lost time due to sick days, and other health related reasons. This first way, any type of company can contribute to sustainability goals, regardless of the type of business.
A second way for companies to contribute to health sustainability is more focused, primarily on companies that operate in the healthcare space. But this is still a very broad group, ranging from pharmaceutical companies to food companies. As consumers around the world are becoming more conscious about what they are eating and drinking, food companies can continue to offer products that have higher nutritional value, and fewer ‘empty calories’. They can also work to make these healthier products more affordable for a larger portion of the population. Many food companies, including PepsiCo, Campbell’s and McDonald’s, which are traditionally not known for healthy consumption, are starting to make this shift, and they are making it a core part of their business. This is a step in the right direction.
The principles of environmental and health sustainability support one another. As sustainability with regards to a growing population becomes a bigger issue in the coming decades, companies that embrace a philosophy that contributes to both can set an example for other companies to follow.