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How to lead in the sustainable health revolution

Simone Wessling
7 Oct 2022

For forward-thinking members of the healthcare community: it’s time to start the transition to sustainable healthcare.

Mounting pressure

One by one, industries are waking up. Sustainable practices have taken hold in the automotive sector, in agriculture, in fashion; even the energy sector is transforming. Until recently the healthcare industry had escaped scrutiny. And yet healthcare in its current form is far from sustainable. It contributes about 4.5% of the world’s greenhouse gasses, and everyday procedures create quantities of waste that, if a heart patient saw them, would land him back in the IC ward. (For me, it’s the pitching of unopened packages of surgical equipment that I can never get used to.) I believe that we stand on the brink of sustainable healthcare, making this the moment to lead.

The wheels are already in motion. Last November, the World Health Organization announced the commitment by 42 countries to cut greenhouse-gas emissions across their health systems. The UK and US have defined national strategies and set up, respectively, the NHS Carbon Reduction Strategy and the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity. Germany and Australia have created similar administrative bodies of their own. But change won’t come until forward thinkers within healthcare take action. For healthcare leaders (or those looking to become leaders), here are three steps to cutting waste and emissions, and achieving sustainable healthcare.

Waste reduction

Around the end of 2020, Dutch artist Maria Koijck underwent a mastectomy. “I am more than happy to have had the chance to heal,” she later wrote, “but I am also shocked by six garbage bags full of waste for one operation, my operation….” It begs the question for me: People want to get better, but at what cost?” Koijck went on to channel those impressions into a work that has become iconic in the push for sustainable healthcare. The installation features the artist at the center of all the medical materials that were used – and disposed of – in the course of her surgery.

Waste in hospitals is endemic, with an average of 29 lbs of waste per bed per day, and it’s understandable why. In high-tension, high-cost, high-stakes healthcare situations such as surgeries, sustainable practices naturally fall lower on the priorities list (“we lost the patient, but we saved a medical gown”). The first step, then, is to make space for decision making outside of stressful situations.

Many of the needed fixes are surprisingly simple, but they need a leader in the institution to take the initiative – to organize a team, start planning, and start executing. Small changes such as providing a receptacle for the reuse of unopened surgical instruments are easy; they just need a push. Procedure and habit are powerful tools that, once established, continue to bring value for long after.

Sustainable operations in healthcare

Reducing waste will go a long way to transforming healthcare; the other leading challenge is cutting CO2 emissions. Much of an organization’s carbon footprint lurks behind closed doors. The first step to optimizing operations for sustainability is to align across the organization, with administration, representatives of each department or ward, and organizational leaders fully engaged. Some specific areas of operations to look at include:

Connected health – work with stakeholders throughout the patient care value chain to reduce indirect emissions. This may be an opportunity to search for new partners with more sustainable practices, such as digital record keeping.

Automated reporting – build transparency and ensure accountability and recognition. Automated reporting provides a trove of data, with healthcare applications that extend far beyond sustainability.

Culture – ingrain sustainable ways of working into operating culture. Demonstrate your organization’s progress visibly and with pride, and reward employees at all levels for innovative solutions.

Invest in tech – the right technology and data-driven solutions ensure sustainability goes hand in hand with profitability. Hospitals around the world are leveraging their physical footprints to reduce their carbon footprints with solar panels and water heaters. Newer equipment is nearly always more efficient, providing another excellent opportunity for upgrades.

Sustainable IT in healthcare

If operational waste is hidden, digital waste is invisible. Yet the effects are very real, resulting in over 50 million tons of e-waste per year. And the solutions are brimming with positive side effects in the form of newer equipment and better data management. If there’s one formula to remember, it’s this:


• Old, inefficient systems? Emissions.
• Doubling work? Emissions.
• Hardware that stalls and crashes? Emissions.
• Printing out hard copies of files that could be managed digitally? Emissions.

If there’s a light bulb forming over your head right now – you’re right. As a rule of thumb, anything that frustrates or impedes your work is probably also needlessly inflating your organization’s carbon footprint. The added benefits to tackling sustainable IT in healthcare are very positive for everyone involved.

Looking ahead, efficient IT also unleashes the potential of smart technologies to drive future environmental innovations and improvements. AI excels at discerning energy-saving trends and opportunities for improvement. IT systems aren’t generating the art-inspiring waste that catches people’s attention, but sustainable IT is absolutely central to a sustainable healthcare strategy.

New buildings are raising the bar

One place where sustainable thinking has taken root in the healthcare industry is in the design of new hospitals, which have seen an explosion of innovation over the last decade. Features include:

• Renewed attention to paints, insulation and other building materials (the Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas)

• Stormwater collection and water-efficient toilets (Kiowa County Memorial Hospital)

• Optimized use of natural lighting (Seijo Kinoshita Hospital, Tokyo)

• Paper-free operations (Children’s hospital of Pittsburgh)

In the Netherlands, the Máxima Center recently committed itself to four simultaneous goals: reducing CO2 emissions, circular economy, reducing the amount of medicine residues in the water and promoting a healthy environment in healthcare. But while some institutions are surging ahead, many have yet to take their first steps. If they don’t act quickly, traditional hospitals will begin to look old-fashioned.

Leading the way

The unsustainable practices of the healthcare industry are just that – unsustainable. Inefficient systems will not stand up when measured against a holistic view of health, where the responsibility to reduce pollution and prevent illness is on par with the ability to treat conditions medically. The only question is, do you want to follow that trend, or do you want to lead?

Capgemini has been helping organizations across industries to achieve the carbon reduction targets linked to the international Paris Agreement and other national sustainability agreements. Our sustainability offerings in the healthcare and other industries contribute to our dual ambition: to become carbon neutral by 2025 and net zero by 2030, and to help clients save 10 million tons of CO2 by 2030. To share your experiences and learn more about building sustainable healthcare for the future, contact me below.


Simone Wessling

Lead Consultant BTS Health, NL
Inspired by nature, health and human beings, I bring green health to the next level. Contact me for help getting started, and let’s transform your business for a more sustainable future.