The Complicated Relationship Between Healthcare Technology and Sustainability

Woman in White Suit with Stethoscope Talking to a Person

By Adrian Johansen, freelance writer; @AdrianJohanse18.

Healthcare technology is transforming what care looks like. In the course of developing new health solutions, however, sustainability often gets pushed to the sidelines. Technologies of the future will determine our relationship with health and with the planet itself, but to strike a healthy balance, we must first explore the often complicated relationship between healthcare technology and sustainability.

Sustainability and technology intertwine more than you might recognize. By evaluating the good, the successes, and failures of this relationship, we can begin to build better care outcomes for both healthcare patients and the livability of our climate. Here’s what you should know.

Successes in Healthcare Sustainability

Let’s start with the good, which there is plenty of in the healthcare industry despite widespread sustainability issues. Sustainability in healthcare is being defined by the efforts of medical professionals as they seek to innovate new green practices through healthcare technology. One of the most instrumental of these sustainability tools has been the pivot to paperless business practices through Electronic Medical Records (EMRs).

EMRs comprise medical systems and databases that store patient information. As a result, patients no longer have to keep their important records in paper form at home and care facilities get the benefit of reducing their supply overhead as well as their consumption of resources. But healthcare sustainability goes far beyond the paperless process.

EMRs have also been instrumental in developing telehealth medical services. These have been vital throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, as telehealth allows patients to visit with a medical professional over a smart device and thereby mitigate the risks associated with traveling to a doctor’s office. Telehealth also means reduced resources, carbon emissions, and costs for patients and providers alike. The result is a more sustainable marketplace for health services.

Failures in Healthcare Sustainability

But sustainability in healthcare is far from great. In fact, medical diagnostic technology alone produced 0.77% of global carbon emissions in 2016. As time goes on and the demand for healthcare only increases, the use of high energy technology will also be on the rise, creating a spiral of increased pollution.

Because medical tech is incredibly demanding when it comes to power. An MRI machine, for instance, uses as much energy as nearly 70 European households combined. This makes for incredible challenges, then, when making health information exchanges more sustainable.

The bad parts of the healthcare technology and sustainability relationship mostly revolve around the demand on the sector and the power and waste that it uses and creates. Here are some important points to consider regarding the negatives of this relationship:

There are many more statistics we could list that show how healthcare technology and sustainability can be improved. But the truly ugly components of the relationship are those that can be improved now but just aren’t.

Failures of Potential

There are plenty of ugly factors when it comes to healthcare technology. For one, access to advanced care treatments is disproportionally in favor of those with higher incomes. This is because rising healthcare costs have made it all but impossible for many to afford care without being thrust into poverty.

At the same time, the global distribution of healthcare resources falls heavily along the lines of wealthy countries. We saw this in stark relief during the COVID-19 pandemic, in which — despite containing only 16% of the world’s population — wealthy countries received 47% of all COVID-19 vaccine doses. The fallout from this disparity disproportionately affects ethnic minorities within populations, adding racial concerns to an already broken system.

Even the technologies meant to impact the future of healthcare positively are often compromised by sustainability concerns, such as security. Blockchain, for instance, is a revolutionary tool for storing and securely communicating data. This is possible through decentralized networks of information, all connected through cryptographic hash functions. But blockchain has its drawbacks.

Blockchain systems were developed for and popularized by cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, which require a process known as “mining” to compute transaction data. This is an incredibly energy-intensive act. Cryptocurrency mining in the Bitcoin network alone uses up the same amount of energy as the country of Switzerland in a single year, a fact that comes with a heavy carbon footprint.

All told, the important ugly fact to remember about healthcare tech and sustainability is that outcomes aren’t equal. The poor suffer most, both in terms of inability to access care and in experiencing the climate effects of unsustainable practices.

Making Healthcare Tech More Sustainable

But we can make healthcare technology more sustainable. The good work being done in implementing green and zero-carbon policies proves that. Healthcare technology needs to change in the meantime, however, to support only environmentally safe systems for monitoring and assisting patients.

The following are just a few ideas for ensuring future healthcare tech advancements are also beneficial for our environment:

With the help of strategies like these, we can eliminate the sustainability failures in healthcare tech to produce only green and healthy practices. Since true sustainability focuses on environmental, economic, and social outcomes, sustainable care is equitable care. By working to improve healthcare sustainability, we create a cleaner and safer world for all those in it.

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