Driving change: Lessons from Milan's Towards Sustainable Healthcare conference

In a collaborative effort, we recently joined forces with one of our esteemed GGHH members, the Auxologico hospital network, to host an inspiring event in Milan, Italy, on 17 October 2023. The Towards Sustainable Healthcare conference united healthcare professionals, experts, and industry leaders from across Italy and Europe to discuss our healthcare system's environmental and climate impact and ways to mitigate it.

A clear message resonated throughout the day: healthcare and hospitals play a pivotal role in transitioning to an environmentally sustainable future, and urgent action is needed. Dr Guido Bertolaso, Regional Welfare Councillor of Lombardy, underlined this urgency by comparing the transition to a more sustainable healthcare system to emergency medicine. He emphasised that time was of the essence, as any delay could result in unnecessary loss of life:

"This is about saving our whole planet. Everything we need to do to reduce our emissions of any kind, to ensure the sustainability of the healthcare sector, requires us to move much more quickly than we are doing at the moment. In short, we need to act fast.”

Presentations and roundtable discussions explored how to navigate this transition, identified barriers, and showcased inspirational examples. The day featured best practice testimonials from Sweden, Spain, Italy, and Scotland, offering industry leaders a chance to join the conversation on their role in transforming healthcare. It also sheds light on the situation in Italy, emphasising opportunities and challenges for doctors and hospital managers.

A holistic approach to sustainable healthcare

At the heart of the conference discussions was the pressing need for a comprehensive approach to reducing harm in healthcare. This includes acknowledging the triple environmental crisis, addressing greenhouse gases, reducing single-use plastics, phasing out toxic chemicals, and recognising the social and health impacts of inaction. The consensus was clear: healthcare institutions must embark on a comprehensive journey to align their practices with sustainability goals.

Leveraging sustainable procurement

A key strategy highlighted at the conference focused on the power of sustainable procurement. By setting strict minimum environmental criteria for procurement, healthcare organisations can reshape the market and encourage the production and consumption of sustainable products. As Anders Bolmstedt, Chemist at the Occupational Health Service and Chairman of the Board of HCWH Europe, pointed out, "Once you buy it, you have to deal with it", highlighting our phase-out list of chemicals, which provides hospitals and manufacturers with a tool to procure safer chemicals. However, more regulatory work is needed for medical devices, as stated by Arianna Gamba, our Director of Programmes, who stressed the need for transparent and comparable life cycle assessments to help hospitals meet their sustainability goals.

The importance of dialogue and sustainability champions

Another critical theme throughout the conference was the need to engage people. Silvia Valcarossa, a member of the Auxologico Green Team, emphasised that it's not just numbers and data that drive progress, but people. She stressed that a move toward sustainability can only succeed when the workforce embraces it as part of their mission. Elaine Mead, Executive Director of Improvement, Care and Compassion, echoed this sentiment, underlining the crucial role of sustainability champions in setting an example for their colleagues and the need to involve a diverse range of healthcare professionals in these efforts. She highlighted the work of anaesthetists in the UK in educating their peers and patients about a particular anaesthetic gas (desflurane), which is 2540 times more potent than CO2, and possible safe substitutes.

Practical steps towards sustainability

The conference unveiled practical examples for healthcare organisations to embark on their sustainability journey:

  • Creating a Green team: Establish a dedicated team within the organisation focused solely on sustainability initiatives.
  • Securing leadership support: Gain unwavering commitment from leadership to prioritise sustainability.
  • Learning from others: Actively engage with and adopt lessons from other organisations and projects.
  • Sharing best practices: Encourage disseminating successful sustainable practices, along with shared experiences and lessons learned.
  • Identifying innovation opportunities: Intensively pursue innovative, sustainable solutions to healthcare challenges.

The contagious nature of ideas

The day concluded on an optimistic note, expressing hope that the ideas shared during the event will inspire and spread throughout the healthcare sector, multiplying their positive impact. In addition to raising awareness of the sector's environmental impact, the conference highlighted proactive steps organisations took toward sustainable healthcare.

The Towards Sustainable Healthcare conference marked an essential stride toward Italy's more sustainable and responsible healthcare sector. By adopting sustainable practices, the Auxologico network and other GGHH members can lead the way in preserving patient well-being and the health of our planet, creating lasting change and propelling us toward a future of sustainable healthcare.

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