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Polish Healthcare Leaders Prioritize Sustainability

HEALTH & MEDICINEPolish Healthcare Leaders Prioritize Sustainability

In Poland, six out of 10 health care leaders indicate that the implementation of new technologies and innovative models of care will benefit not only patients but also the planet – according to the eighth edition of the “Future Health Index” report by Philips Healthcare. It shows that sustainable development and green transformation are currently important issues in healthcare, especially for young medical personnel. Although all Polish health care leaders undertake sustainable development initiatives, they face many challenges. To meet them, they rely on cooperation, learning from each other, and sharing best practices.

The health care sector is responsible for 4.4 percent of global CO2 emissions. If it were a state, it would be the fifth-largest global emitter of greenhouse gases. Importantly, emissions from this sector are still rising – in a “business as usual” scenario, without action on climate, by 2050, they would reach 6 gigatons of CO2 annually (“Green hospitals” report, Philips, and UN Global Compact Network Poland). Over 70 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions from the health sector come from the supply chain, e.g. the production and transport of medicines, medical devices, food, and equipment for hospitals, most of which still run on fossil fuel energy. Medical waste, including millions of tonnes of plastics and disposable tools used during procedures, which for regulatory reasons cannot be efficiently managed, also pose a significant environmental challenge. The COVID-19 pandemic has markedly exacerbated this problem – according to GUS data, in 2021 alone in Poland, the amount of medical waste produced increased by almost 50 percent year-on-year, exceeding 120,000 tonnes. All of this results in discussions about sustainable development and green transformation becoming increasingly more frequent in the healthcare sector.

“Sustainable development is indeed currently an important issue in healthcare. According to research commissioned by Philips, virtually all health care leaders in Poland are taking environmentally friendly actions,” says Michał Grzybowski, CEO of Philips Poland.

This includes, among other things, the energy efficiency of hospitals and medical facilities, changes in their management, digitization, and modification of supply chains. Experts say this is a necessary step because health care has a special position: on the one hand, it contributes to climate change on its own, on the other – it is heavily affected by their consequences. Air pollution is already contributing globally to around 3.3 million deaths, and climate change is contributing to the spread of infectious diseases, further burdening health care systems (for example, the number of months suitable for transmitting the malaria virus increased globally by 39 percent between 2010 and 2019 compared to the 1950s).

“Some of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals are directly related to healthcare, and we should prioritize them, especially those related to health safety or reducing mortality. We will, of course, continue to follow this path and I believe that, thanks to innovations and technological development, we can achieve these goals,” says Dr. Hab. Tomasz Stefaniak, Director for Medical Care at the University Clinical Center in Gdańsk.

As the latest, eighth edition of the “Future Health Index” report, published by Philips, shows, healthcare leaders and medical staff agree that technologies and innovative models of care need to be implemented to meet the growing needs of patients and improve the quality of the health care system with increasingly limited resources. In Poland, 64 percent of decision-makers, hospital and medical facility directors, are already implementing or planning to implement solutions such as automation, artificial intelligence, and virtual care.

Significantly, respondents in Poland – more often than in other countries surveyed – believe that this will benefit not only patients and medical facilities but also the wider environment. Six in 10 think that new ways of providing care are more environmentally friendly, which is backed up by the data. European data for 2020-2021 shows that each remote visit allowed to avoid an average of 3.057 kg of net CO2 emissions, and retrieving medical documentation digitally rather than printed saves 1.5 kg of net CO2 emissions.

“The youngest generation of Polish medics and healthcare professionals are much more sensitive and cognizant of issues related to sustainable development,” notes Dr. Małgorzata Gałązka-Sobotka, Dean of the Postgraduate Education Center and Director of the Healthcare Management Institute at Lazarski University. “International surveys clearly show that among young healthcare professionals, sensitivity to environmental issues and work culture can decide whether they will want to work for a particular employer. However, for many managers, who represent an older generation, these issues may not be unimportant, but they are definitely not a priority. It seems that this generational dialogue, which is also taking place in the Polish healthcare system, will even out the level of knowledge about sustainable development, the level of responsibility and awareness that the goals should be shared.”

She points out that greater awareness is needed, as currently in the healthcare sector, the concept of sustainable development has largely been reduced to the narrow aspect of reducing the carbon footprint.

“According to the ESG concept, we should look at sustainable development in many areas of our activities, such as the relationships we create with our internal and external stakeholders, the efficiency of the processes for which we are responsible, social aspects, or the economic efficiency of resource management,” says the expert from Lazarski University’s Postgraduate Education Center. “When discussing the concept of sustainable development, we must first ask ourselves the extent to which this concept is recognized among healthcare professionals, to what extent we understand its nuances, methods, and tools for achieving sustainable development.”

In addition to insufficient awareness and knowledge on this topic, there are other barriers in Polish healthcare that make it difficult to implement the concept of sustainable development. This includes the lack of appropriate budgets for this purpose – in the “Future Health Index 2023” survey, 36 percent of decision-makers, hospital directors, and medical institutions pointed to this aspect (versus 24 percent globally). Nearly half of healthcare leaders in Poland (48 percent vs. 33 percent globally) also declare that gaps in environmental regulations for this sector are a challenge.

“Regulations impose on various industries – including the pharmaceutical industry, for example – the obligation to report their activities in the ESG area, but healthcare itself is not covered by it. Nevertheless, it is a part of the DNA of the healthcare sector to discuss such matters regardless of whether they are or are not a legal requirement. The sooner we initiate a common discussion on standards in this area, the greater our contribution to the sustainable development of the healthcare sector will be,” says Dr. Małgorzata Gałązka-Sobotka. “Standards are a very good tool for us all to level our knowledge and the boundaries of responsibility. I am convinced that a conversation about these standards in the field of sustainable development in the healthcare sector should take place in the very near future.”

According to the Philips survey, 30 percent of healthcare leaders and 38 percent of young medical personnel believe that hospitals and healthcare systems should be responsible for setting sustainable development standards in the industry. In the second place, medical technology sector companies were mentioned (over 20 percent).

“The role of medical technology companies is crucial in supporting hospitals and healthcare in implementing various sustainable development solutions. In our study, half of the respondents indicated that such cooperation between them is already happening,” emphasizes Michał Grzybowski.

As shown by the “Future Health Index” report, healthcare leaders in Poland cope differently with the challenges of sustainable development. First and foremost, almost half of them share best practices and learn from others. One in three finds a business justification for such initiatives. A similar percentage employs additional staff with specialist skills in this field.

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