Connected for COP26: Medical Physicists and the Climate Emergency
On behalf of the Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine (IPEM).
We are healthcare scientists practising as physicists, engineers and technologists within medical specialties such as radiotherapy, imaging, physiological measurement and many others. We work across NHS and private healthcare, academia and industry (including medical equipment manufacturers). As such, our job roles do not often expressly include the development of technology designed to combat climate change. However, in common with many of our medical colleagues, our training as scientists leads us to be aware of the climate and ecological emergencies, and the need to minimise the ecological footprint of what we do. Our work is to improve the health of our communities, and this requires action on climate change as much as action on the delivery of healthcare.
A growing number of physicists, engineers and technologists within the NHS are helping our colleagues to improve the ecological footprint of their practice. The NHS produces about 5% of UK CO2e emissions, and is responsible for around 4% of UK road miles driven (including staff and patient transport) and the opportunity, or rather responsibility, for carbon reduction within the healthcare system is huge. The NHS recognises this, and the “Greener NHS” initiative is their response. NHS hospitals are required to formulate a “Green Plan” which embeds a response to the climate challenge into the management structure of the institution at NHS Trust level; IPEM members along with other scientific staff are having input into these plans to ensure their effectiveness.
At a departmental level, actions are being taken across many UK hospitals. Staff training is a key issue; awareness of actions that can be taken to reduce carbon footprint is low amongst many hospital staff, although surveys reveal that many care about the issue, and so education about what can be done is an important first step. The Centre for Sustainable Healthcare (https://sustainablehealthcare.org.uk/) has developed an e-learning training pack to increase staff awareness, and several healthcare scientists and engineers have delivered training and awareness-raising through staff meetings, lectures and discussions.
Another idea being trialled is designating “Green Ambassadors” amongst the staff community to help colleagues with the day-to-day actions that can help. Frequent suggestions are the minimisation of power wastage (equipment being left on for longer than needed, often causing both direct power draw and an increase in air conditioning demand), and segregation of waste, with impact on recycling rates as well as landfill and incineration emissions. Busy staff are willing to make changes when helped to do so and have requested guidance and help to keep environmental issues in mind. This is where much can be gained within our workplaces by creating a network of engaged people and feedback of what the day-to-day issues are.
A further area of concern within the healthcare system is transport. Huge numbers of car journeys are involved for both staff and patients, and significant effort is being taken to minimise this, and allow people to access health services using more environmentally friendly transport modes or making travel optional using video calls for virtual clinics and meetings where appropriate..
The IPEM annual conference, MPEC, now includes a session dedicated to the study of environmental sustainability. There is also a special interest group within our professional society to develop and share best practice in this area (https://www.ipem.ac.uk/AboutIPEM/SpecialInterestGroups/EnvironmentalSustainabilityGroup.aspx). There is very little literature in major disciplines such as radiotherapy and nuclear medicine on the carbon footprint of service delivery, and our group is proposing to work in this area with a view to measuring, and then reducing, this footprint.
Reduction of the environmental footprint within the UK healthcare sector is, regrettably, a relatively new area of focus; however, the scientific community recognises the connection between the climate emergency and the health of our population, and we are working hard to make improvements wherever we can see opportunities.
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Read the rest of the blog series here.