Promoting health through environmental sustainability

To mark National Recycling Week and World Environmental Health Day on Tuesday 26 September, National Medical Director's clinical fellow Jenny Isherwood reminds doctors and healthcare professionals why the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) is dedicated to environmental awareness and what we are doing to support them to address environmental issues.

We know that your health is the result of a complex interaction between your genetic makeup and environmental interactions. We can’t alter our genetic makeup but we can influence our environment to promote health and protect ourselves from illness now, and in the future.

Environmental interactions can be as tangible as what we eat or drink, how much we exercise and whether we smoke. Public campaigns promoting healthy lifestyles have littered the media for over half a century but how poor air quality impacts on our health has only really taken hold in the public's consciousness in recent years.

Exponential population growth means that other lifestyle choices are now negatively impacting on health. The number of passenger vehicles on the planet is fast approaching the number of humans on the planet, and the majority of these run off combustion engines consuming fossil fuels. Automobiles, trains and planes are one of the largest contributors to climate change, superseded only by agriculture, and are the main determinant of declining air quality.

Poor air quality affects all ages from babies in the womb to the older generations. Air pollution has been linked with premature delivery and low birth weights, or declining lung function and heart attacks in the elderly. If you are not already familiar with the health implications of poor air quality and climate change I highly recommend you read the RCP reports Every breath we take and Breaking the fever.

Nearly two-thirds of the NHS carbon footprint results from staff and patient travel, and procurement of pharmaceuticals and medical devices.

Jenny Isherwood, National Medical Director's clinical fellow

The NHS serves to make people better and keep the population well. However, our core business is causing us (as an organisation) to become the largest public sector contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in Europe. The NHS produces 18 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. That is more than Heathrow on an annual basis.

Nearly two-thirds of the NHS carbon footprint results from staff and patient travel, and procurement of pharmaceuticals and medical devices. This puts doctors in a unique position to lead positive change not only by encouraging healthy lifestyles among patients and staff but by influencing our supplies to become more environmentally considerate through our procurement habits. 

I am leading a stream of work at the RCP which will guide doctors on how to work with their local procurement teams to ensure our supply chains consider health at every point in a product life cycle and how we can build sustainable models of care to ensure our patient needs are being met with uncompromising quality whilst being considerate towards limited resources.

I will also be working with our growing Quality Improvement (QI) Hub to embed teaching on sustainability and metrics of measuring success into quality improvement.

Jenny Isherwood, National Medical Director's clinical fellow

If you want to find out more about healthcare sustainability please contact sustainability@rcplondon.ac.uk.

If you are already making changes locally please share your good practice and tell us your story.