From planetary health to planetary healthcare

The UBC Planetary Healthcare Lab is charting a path toward net zero healthcare systems. Dr. Andrea MacNeill explains how.

In Canada, healthcare is responsible for more than four-and-a-half per cent of greenhouse gas emissions — equivalent to the aviation industry.

Formed in 2021, the Planetary Healthcare Lab brings together a highly interdisciplinary team of researchers and experts from UBC and Vancouver Coastal Health to tackle this problem. Together, they are examining the environmental effects of healthcare delivery and services and, through innovative solutions, charting a path toward net zero.

Launched with start-up funds from the Faculty of Medicine’s Strategic Investment Fund, the Planetary Healthcare Lab tackles everything from hospital food-related pollution and unnecessary patient testing and treatment through to emissions stemming from the medical supply chain.

Pathways spoke to Dr. Andrea MacNeill, director of the Planetary Healthcare Lab, about the concept of planetary health, the importance of planetary healthcare, and the team’s progress so far.

What is planetary health?

Planetary health is the idea that human health is entirely dependent upon a healthy environment. So, in other words, our wellbeing is contingent upon clean air, clean water, clean soil and a stable climate. Climate change threatens these things, and without them we can’t live or thrive.

You coined the term “planetary healthcare” in a 2019 essay in The Lancet. Can you explain what that means?

When we take that idea of planetary health and the ecological determinants of health and we apply it to the health system, we arrive at what we’ve called planetary healthcare.

The practice of planetary healthcare includes the idea that healthier populations use less healthcare and that lessens our environmental footprint. So, planetary healthcare means focusing upstream on prevention, ensuring universal access to primary care, and shifting patients into what we called a ‘low-tech, high-touch community environment’ and keeping them out of the more resource-intense acute care environment.

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