Cathy van Beek is board member and expert in sustainable healthcare. We ask Cathy about the future of healthcare. What makes the next generation healthcare professionals so different? What developments make her optimistic? And what worries her?
Our healthcare system is strained. How does it affect you?
I’m deeply concerned about the labour market. There will be – there is already – a shortage of staff. I don’t see enough people addressing this concern from a strategic perspective. How are we supposed to staff our hospitals in ten years? I think we need a government-led taskforce to work on this. Uniting all ‘hot shots’ from our country, perhaps from outside our country too. People who know about labor-saving technology. About job evaluations. Because the jobs in our healthcare system are so inflexible. We need to create more flexibility and let people to take on bigger variety of tasks. For instance, putting doctors on Intensive Care wards to relieve the pressure on nurses. Also, I would like us to more about job satisfaction. Innovating our ways of working, together with employees. I hear a lot about healthcare budgets. That healthcare will become too costly in the future. Well, if there aren’t enough healthcare workers, such discussion are oblivious.
My second concern is about the planet. As Herman Wijffels (former Rabobank chair, ed.) says: “How can we be healthy if our planet isn’t? Make sure you heal the planet before you heal the patient.” Planetary health and human health are related. There’s an interesting report from the WHO (World Health Organization, ed.) about air pollution. About how it affects the brain, the vascular system, the chances of getting cancer. I think governments should take air quality more serious. Did you know children in Rotterdam who live in neighborhoods close to highways are often born with astma? Poor air quality reduces life expectancy with up to 7 years, reducing the number of years in good health too. I think we need prioritize the coherence between health and planet.
What role does sustainability play in the healthcare transition?
I like to use the four pillars of the framework of the Green Deal (for sustainable healthcare, ed.). It’s has been given a lot of thought, so let’s use it. The first pillar is a sustainable built environment. This is about sustainable mobility, sustainable buildings etc. Board members of health facilities can easily stimulate this. Stimulate people to come to work by bike, with public transport. Implement energy savings in your buildings.
The second is about circularity. This is what a lot of young healthcare professionals are working on. We need to go from disposable products to reusable products. The younger generations have started to working together with suppliers to make products reusable. There are innovations too: you can disinfect and sterilize any product with UV lights in a matter of seconds. We need to speed up these kinds of innovations. It can be done. Just look at the speed with which COVID-19 vaccines were developed. Everyone pulled together to accelerate the process, working simultaneously. We’re stil in crisis: a planetary crisis.
The third is about medication that’s polluting our water. Drinking water companies struggle to get medication out of the water. It’s affecting wildlife too: fish become reckless from psycho-pharmaceuticals or undergoing gender change from contraceptive pills. Can’t we promote alternative birth control, such as IUDs? We need GPs and gynecologists to help this change.
Fourth is a healthy living environment. How to stimulate healthy behavior to prevent diseases? Inviting children to grab an apple instead crisps. Free and healthy fruit available for children. A warm and vegetable-packed lunch at school, even? Making sure they grow up in green surroundings. Because research shows they will play outside more, and then they move more. Creating a healthy living environment helps prevent obesity, astma and other ailments. It also affects our working environment. There’s a lot of evidence that when going outside and seeing plants in your lunch break, there’s less chance of a burn-out. Why not make sure healthcare facilities all have a green space. There’s so much knowledge out there. Let’s use it.
Young people don’t come and work for you if sustainability isn’t on your agenda.
Cathy van Beek
These sound like straightforward solutions. What’s stopping us from implementing them?
Because there’s not enough knowledge. That’s why I just wrote a book about sustainable healthcare. We just got started in healthcare. I think we can learn from others sectors too. Why not learn from pharmaceutical companies? I’m member of the advisory board of the VIG (organization for innovative medicines, ed.) and they already adopted ESG targets (environmental, social, and governmental targets, ed.). For medical professionals, sustainability isn’t even part of the curriculum. Doctors and nurses aren’t being educated. Board members have to be trained too.
Having good sustainability policies and standards is also attractive for new employees. When I was board member at the Radboud Medical Centre, we attracted many new hires because we had good sustainability policies. Young people expect this and don’t come and work for you if sustainability isn’t on your agenda. In my experience, at least.
You referred to learning from each other. Is this happening enough in our healthcare system?
When it comes to sustainability: no. I’m part of an initiative in Rotterdam that unites six hospitals, but also other care homes, psychiatrists, GPs. We provide board members and sustainability coordinators a chance to meet and share best practices. It’s an eye-opening experience for many. Learning what projects are being undertaken in terms of sustainability, circularity. But we still need to do more. We only have 30 years left to turn the tide. We need supervisory board members to stand up. They must, because there will be Europeans rules and regulation about sustainability reporting. These will apply hospitals too. But really, it begins with strategy. I find it unbelievable that not every board has made sustainability a strategic priority. Board members must perform checks. Is sustainability on our agenda? What is its priority? What can I do to accelerate this? Next to supervisory boards, we need others to stand up. Thee board of directors, employee participation boards, works councils. They all have a duty to work on sustainability. Patient councils can stimulate change too. They ask for it. Diabetes patients ask for needles with less plastic. There’s a lovely video made by artist Maria Kojick about the amount of waste generated when she needed surgery.
What’s needed to speed up the transition?
We will need a multi-stakeholder approach. Take the concept of Green Teams. Projects where passionate medical professionals from various disciplines promote sustainable solutions. These shouldn’t be pet projects. Board members need to give those teams a clear status and mandate. Now, allow met to mention another stakeholder too: health insurance companies. They joined forces to create new common sustainability requirements for healthcare providers. It’s a good way for to hold healthcare providers accountable. As you know very well, this is a systemic change. The system needs to change. Incentives need to change. Education needs to change. Assessments need to change. We need to work on this together. Using research to understand ways our healthcare system can prevent climate change and ways to minimize the effects of climate change on our health.