The growing importance of sustainability in healthcare


Sustainability in the healthcare sector is a topic that is increasingly being discussed, with both hospitals and the pharmaceutical industry playing a crucial role. The impressive figures speak for themselves: 17 kg of waste and 300 liters of water usage per ICU patient per day, 190 tons of pharmaceutical residues discharged into surface water each year, and 100 million euros worth of unused medications discarded annually. These figures illustrate that the healthcare sector significantly contributes to CO2 emissions, waste production, and water consumption.

In the Netherlands, the healthcare sector is responsible for 7% of CO2 emissions. There is a growing awareness that sustainability in the healthcare sector is essential. The pharmaceutical industry also plays a part in this. Although the pharmaceutical industry faces complex challenges, such as ensuring quality and affordability, it also needs to take steps to reduce its environmental impact.

Pharmaceutical industry: balancing quality, affordability, and sustainability

The pharmaceutical industry faces the challenge of finding a balance between quality, affordability, and sustainability. Producing and distributing medicines requires strict quality controls and compliance with regulations to ensure safety and efficacy, which can result in a higher ecological footprint. Moreover, there is limited knowledge about the environmental impact of older drugs due to a lack of data. At the same time, affordability of medications must be considered, as higher production costs can lead to higher prices for consumers. Striking a balance between these factors is a complex task that the pharmaceutical industry is facing.

Hospitals: patient-related environmental impacts and the importance of a comprehensive approach

In addition to the pharmaceutical industry, hospitals also play a significant role in the sustainability of the healthcare sector. Treating patients has considerable environmental impacts, such as greenhouse gas emissions and waste generation. To reduce these effects, it is important for hospitals to adopt a holistic approach throughout their entire value chain. This means paying attention to all aspects of healthcare, from the procurement and use of medications to waste management and energy consumption. By optimizing the entire chain, hospitals can contribute to a more sustainable healthcare sector.

Promising developments

Fortunately, there are positive developments underway to make both the pharmaceutical industry and the healthcare sector as a whole more sustainable. Some of these developments include:

  1. The Green Care Alliance (De Groene Zorg Alliantie): A network organization of healthcare professionals focused on making the healthcare sector more sustainable and promoting a healthy living environment. This alliance aims to achieve a greener and more environmentally friendly healthcare sector through collaboration, knowledge sharing, and innovation.
  2. The Green Operating Room (De Groene OK): Established in 2020 to make surgical care more sustainable. The introduction of the Green Barometer allows hospitals to measure the environmental impact of an operating room and receive a personalized advisory report to improve their sustainability performance.
  3. The Dutch Consortium for Antibiotic and Medication Residues in Water (Het Nederlands Consortium Antibiotica- en Medicijnresten uit Water): A public-private consortium that connects the pharmaceutical, healthcare, and water sectors and provides technological solutions to reduce the discharge of antibiotic and medication residues into wastewater and remove existing residues. It focuses on both source control and production companies, working on this issue nationally and internationally.
  4. Sustainability in the pharmaceutical supply chain: Pharmaceutical companies are taking measures to reduce energy consumption, minimize waste, and improve water treatment technologies. They are exploring the use of renewable raw materials and biological processes to enable more sustainable production of medicines, with biotechnology offering interesting possibilities for utilizing sustainable sources.

Collaboration as the key to a more sustainable healthcare sector

In addition to these efforts, there are policy initiatives in the Netherlands aimed at making the healthcare sector more sustainable. Last year, the Green Deal Sustainable Healthcare 3.0 was signed, a collaboration between healthcare institutions, governments, and other stakeholders to promote the sustainability of healthcare. This agreement focuses on five themes, including medication, with the goal of achieving more sustainable healthcare between 2023 and 2026. This Green Deal is a crucial step towards a more sustainable healthcare sector in the Netherlands.

At the European level, there are frameworks addressing climate, environment, healthcare, and public health, such as the European Green Deal, the “Fit-for-55” package, the Pharmaceutical Strategy, ‘Farm-to-fork,’ and REPowerEU20. The EU takes a comprehensive approach to the sustainability of the healthcare sector, addressing waste, circularity, and digitization to achieve a more environmentally friendly healthcare industry.

Sustainable healthcare is an urgent and complex issue. Striking a balance between quality, affordability, and sustainability is essential. The Netherlands has the opportunity to take a leading role in this process. By collaborating among the pharmaceutical industry, hospitals, governments, and other stakeholders, sustainable solutions can be developed and implemented. Informing the patient, a crucial player in the entire chain, and providing choices regarding sustainable medications could also be a significant aspect. Often, there is currently no good choice available because drugs cannot be easily compared due to a lack of data. By collectively striving for a more sustainable healthcare sector, we can have a positive impact on the environment and the future of healthcare.

"Het vinden van een balans tussen kwaliteit, betaalbaarheid en duurzaamheid is essentieel."

Dauphine Sulzer

Senior Account Executive

Public matters

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