Most people would not associate the notion of ‘sustainability’ with our health system. What we all hope for is a workforce committed to curing, or at least lessening the burden of what ails us. We probably won’t be watching any health professionals too closely to see whether or not they are “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” (Definition of sustainability by the United Nations World Commission of Environment and Development.)
When Peter was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma in August 2005, visiting hospitals soon became part of our routine.
But let’s start somewhere near the beginning. In 2006, Peter was admitted to the Royal Melbourne Hospital for his first stem cell transplant. At the time, we weren’t concerned about whether the hospital was following the three pillars of sustainability – economic, social and environmental. Our thoughts were more along the line of, ‘do whatever you can to fix this, no matter what it takes.’
When Peter needed to return to the hospital system for a tandem transplant in December 2015, even though the effectiveness of the treatment was still our highest priority, we found ourselves wondering, just how sustainable this system is. As an inpatient, one of the first services one encounters is ‘hospital food’. That’s a job I wouldn’t like to be responsible for; you would never be able to satisfy all of your clientele. We voiced our fair share of complaints, sending back many meals, either untouched, or tasted and rejected.
One day, a staff employee told us that any food returned is thrown out, even unopened packaged food. Which results in a lot of food going to landfill. This had me wondering, how come I haven’t transferred our ‘zero food waste’ policy at home to how I relate to the food served at the hospital? I realised that it had something to do with the food being ‘free’, and not having to personally dispose of it.
Another conversation between staff reminded us that the service being provided is not ‘free’, it was during a discussion about how much a bag of blood costs. A couple of times when Peter developed a fever, the staff had to hold off on providing extra blood, in order to cross off the list the possibility of the blood being the cause of the fever. If the donated blood is not used within a short period of time, it has to be thrown out. A bag of blood costs the hospital quite a bit of money. Multiply that by all the people needing blood across the entire hospital system. And all the tests and around the clock care that we receive ‘free’ via our public health system.
We wanted to do our little bit. We became more considerate in our choices from the menu. Would it be eaten? If not, could it be taken home for Suki or our backyard birds? We started keeping the plastic medicine cups, determined to find some use for them. I started taking home the plastic bags used to keep the bread fresh, and I’m still reusing them seven months down the track. Along with a range of other pretty cute re-using and recycling behaviors.
But this is not about how annoyingly ‘good’ we have become, it’s about seeing where we can all contribute to lessening our impact on the ‘the ability of future generations to meet their needs’. I was interested to know where the Austin Hospital (Heidelberg) and the Alfred Hospital (Prahran) officially stand on providing a sustainable service. Not that this is a competition, but if it were, the Austin would win, hands down. The Austin has had an environmental management strategy for several years.
While I couldn’t find an EMS for The Alfred, I did notice that they are advertising for an Environmental Sustainability Officer. And considering the Alfred will be our second home for the next few months, we would like them to ‘up their sustainability ante’.
They are making small changes around the hospital, such an including separate bins for landfill and recyclables.
Also, in the clinical trial wing, they provide loose coffee and milk in cartons rather than single serve options. Note the reusable mugs as well. Every little thing helps.
We are incredibly fortunate to have access to our health system, with its human expertise, the investigative tests that reveal our ailments and a place to go when our bodies require medical intervention. On the radio last week, I heard an announcer commenting on the recent death of Hugh McDonald, a musician who was a member of the band, Red Gum. He said that Hugh was very grateful for the taxpayers’ money that indirectly provided the medical treatment needed to treat his illness. I appreciated his thoughtfulness, and it occurred to me that this current level of care we receive should not be taken for granted.
There are so many ways we can contribute to keeping our health system sustainable, from living well in order to avoid needing to use it, to not expecting the full array of services unless they are actually needed, and then, when we have no option, to appreciate that we are some of the lucky ones.
I must confess that I feel inclined to stash pain killers and antiobiotics – just in case – but that is way too ‘doomsday prepper’. I’d like to think that we will look out for each other.