Climate Change Demands 'Green' Endoscopy

Jim Kling

September 03, 2021

Climate change is a global threat, and it presents a dual problem to health care: The system must address health threats that may be caused or exacerbated by climate change, while at the same time minimizing its environmental impact, according to the authors of a paper in Techniques and Innovations in Gastrointestinal Endoscopy.

Because of how often it is performed, endoscopy may have one of the highest environmental impacts of any health care procedure. Waste produced by endoscopy is the third largest source in a typical hospital, equivalent yearly to burning 39 million pounds of coal or 13,500 tons of plastic. That makes endoscopy a key target in reducing the environmental footprint of health care, according to the authors, who were led by Rosemary Haddock, MBChB, MRCP, of Ninewells Hospital in Dundee, Scotland.

Climate change has direct impacts on health, ranging from the effects of wildfire smoke and pollution on respiratory and cardiac health to food insecurity, heat stroke, and alterations to the geographic ranges of vector-borne diseases. It also raises the risk of future pandemics like COVID-19. "Climate change is a major threat to health and threatens to undermine the last 50 years of public health gains," the authors wrote.

Although the effects of climate change on gastrointestinal diseases has not been studied as extensively as other organ systems, there are known impacts. These include more gastrointestinal infections at higher temperatures, the risk of enteric pathogens and viral hepatitis as a result of flooding and higher water temperatures, and malnutrition caused by the disruption of food crops and distribution. "It seems a little unlikely that the organs which we are interested in as gastroenterologists and hepatologists are largely exempt from the direct effects of hotter temperatures, when every other human organ system appears to be affected almost without exception," the authors wrote.

Those issues put an onus on health care to address climate change, not only in health care delivery but also to find ways to reduce emissions as an industry. Hospitals and other large facilities can act as "anchor institutions" that set an example within the community and influence others since they procure goods and services and own assets and land. To date, few institutions have adopted this stance.

A key question is how health care institutions can reduce resource use while maintaining quality of care. One approach is to identify areas of medical overuse, where wasteful practices have no patient benefit. The authors believe that a reduction in endoscopic procedures could have one of the largest impacts on carbon emissions. They emphasized that reduced numbers of procedures would likely have greater effect than making procedures "greener."

Some endoscopic procedures offer little value to the patient. The approach of screening to combat disease, introduced in 1968, should be challenged in some patient groups because it can lead to unnecessary procedures.

The American Gastroenterological Association has identified some procedures as commonly overused, including screening colonoscopy in average-risk individuals, surveillance colonoscopy for low-risk polyps, and surveillance esophagogastroduodenoscopy in Barrett’s esophagus. The authors note that performing fewer endoscopies will require shifts in behavior, referral patterns, education, and culture, all of which will take time.

In the meantime, endoscopists can take some steps to reduce the footprint of existing procedures: source supplies through sustainable means, which is important because supply chain emissions account for more than half of health care emissions; seek out sources of renewable energy; use their institution’s status as an "anchor institution" to pressure suppliers into using sustainable practices; evaluate less invasive procedures, such as Cytosponge or fecal immunochemical test; employ reusable or recyclable equipment; minimize the use of nitrous oxide, which is a key greenhouse gas; segregate infectious waste; and develop multiple recycling streams.

The authors have no relevant financial disclosures.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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