Using informatics to monitor and measure healthcare’s climate impact

Climate change is an increasing threat to individuals, communities, and infrastructure, as it brings on extreme events such as heatwaves and hurricanes, and increases the global burden of disease. The healthcare system also contributes greatly to the global carbon footprint. In a cyclical nature, healthcare’s carbon footprint worsens climate change effects, which worsens individual health outcomes. This then leads to more healthcare use, thus generating increased emissions. Therefore, it is imperative that healthcare systems become aware of, and act on their high carbon emissions to reduce these far-reaching impacts.

Dr K-lynn Smith, Professor Yvonne Zurynski and Professor Jeffrey Braithwaite of PCHSS’s Observatory recently contributed to a special climate-centred issue of JAMIA (edited by PCHSS’s Professors Enrico Coiera and Farah Magrabi), in which they discussed the current informatic methods and tools available to assess this environmental impact of healthcare.

Smith et al. highlight that the most accessible and complete data to assess climate impact is currently economic activity data, which can be used in tools such as multi-region input-output (MRIO) models to measure cross-flow transactions. This can then be linked to carbon emission data, or to life cycle assessments (LCA) of greenhouse gas (GHG) contributions, to fully understand the entire environmental and economic impact of healthcare activity.

While tools like this are in practice, monitoring and reporting of data is fragmented, making it difficult to draw comparisons between healthcare networks, or to understand healthcare’s carbon impact on a broad level. For example, in Australia, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare only reports aggregated country-level GHG data, rather than on a state-based level.

Overall, the tools and frameworks for measuring and monitoring environmental impacts of healthcare are developed and available, but data and information must be more readily captured and accessible if clinicians, researchers, and policy makers are to make a real difference to the threat of climate change. Combined with high-level policies and a multisectoral approach, mitigating the effects of climate change might then be possible from a health system standpoint, as long as the data is there to support it. After all, we can’t mitigate what we don’t monitor.

A systematic review of digital health and climate change published by PCHSS researchers was also included in this issue; read more about it here.

Subscribe to our newsletter