From planetary health to planetary healthcare

From planetary health to planetary healthcare

The UBC Planetary Healthcare Lab is charting a path toward net zero healthcare systems. Dr. Andrea MacNeill explains how.

Dr. Andrea MacNeill

In Canada, healthcare is responsible for more than four-and-a-half per cent of greenhouse gas emissions — equivalent to the aviation industry.

Formed in 2021, the Planetary Healthcare Lab brings together a highly interdisciplinary team of researchers and experts from UBC and Vancouver Coastal Health to tackle this problem. Together, they are examining the environmental effects of healthcare delivery and services and, through innovative solutions, charting a path toward net zero.

Launched with start-up funds from the Faculty of Medicine’s Strategic Investment Fund, the Planetary Healthcare Lab tackles everything from hospital food-related pollution and unnecessary patient testing and treatment through to emissions stemming from the medical supply chain.

Pathways spoke to Dr. Andrea MacNeill, director of the Planetary Healthcare Lab, about the concept of planetary health, the importance of planetary healthcare, and the team’s progress so far.

What is planetary health?

Planetary health is the idea that human health is entirely dependent upon a healthy environment. So, in other words, our wellbeing is contingent upon clean air, clean water, clean soil and a stable climate. Climate change threatens these things, and without them we can’t live or thrive.

You coined the term “planetary healthcare” in a 2019 essay in The Lancet. Can you explain what that means?

When we take that idea of planetary health and the ecological determinants of health and we apply it to the health system, we arrive at what we’ve called planetary healthcare.

The practice of planetary healthcare includes the idea that healthier populations use less healthcare and that lessens our environmental footprint. So, planetary healthcare means focusing upstream on prevention, ensuring universal access to primary care, and shifting patients into what we called a ‘low-tech, high-touch community environment’ and keeping them out of the more resource-intense acute care environment.

“By delivering low-carbon, sustainable healthcare, we’ll lessen our environmental impact while at the same time improving people’s health.”

It also means looking at the appropriateness of the care that we’re delivering within that system and avoiding low-value care that just consumes resources and generates waste without contributing to patients’ outcomes.

And then the final element is looking at the care we’re delivering — and optimizing its environmental performance.

By delivering low-carbon, sustainable care with low environmental impacts across all categories, we’ll lessen our carbon footprint while at the same time improving people’s health.

Can you talk about the Planetary Healthcare Lab at UBC?

The UBC Planetary Healthcare Lab looks to reimagine health services to be better for both the patient and planetary health.

So, we are a novel and unique interdisciplinary collaborative that brings together experts and thought leaders from across a number of disciplines, including clinical specialties as well as health policy and economics, behavioral sciences, public health and environmental engineering to generate the data-driven best practices in sustainable healthcare — and then design appropriate behavioral and policy interventions.

Watch: Dr. MacNeill discusses the UBC Planetary Healthcare Lab.

What are some examples of Planetary Healthcare Lab projects?

Our work brings together faculty and learners from across the Faculty of Medicine, often in collaboration with researchers from the Faculty of Applied Science as well as other partners.

For example, we are investigating how to deliver the highest-quality, lowest-carbon care for end-stage kidney disease patients. The goal is to optimize their quality of life and clinical outcomes while simultaneously minimizing the environmental impacts of their care and their vulnerability to climate-related risks.

The Planetary Healthcare Lab has also conducted environmental impact assessments of different methods of warming patients before, during, and after surgery. We are now implementing the most successful of these strategies to help reduce surgery related emissions while ensuring good patient outcomes.

Another project modelled carbon savings from virtual care, in terms of patient travel avoided. We are now working on more comprehensive, rigorous environmental impact assessments of virtual care options and their appropriate application.

Our researchers are doing really exciting, innovative work. We’re the only academic entity of our kind, anywhere in the world.

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