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Healing the Planet, Healing Ourselves – The Connection Between Environmentalism and Physiotherapy

 

The environment is the foundation of all life on Earth. It provides the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, and the resources we use to build our homes, businesses, and communities. However, in recent years, the environment has been under threat from various human activities, including pollution, deforestation, climate change, and overuse of natural resources. These activities have led to severe environmental degradation, resulting in the loss of biodiversity, destruction of habitats, and adverse effects on human health and well-being. These are well-known facts that cannot be denied. Here’s another fact, as healthcare becomes more technologically sophisticated, utilizes more and more natural resources and generates increasing amounts of pollution. 

Before we dwell into the depths of this article, let us understand certain terms and definitions.

Sustainable Healthcare – The World Health Organisation defines a Sustainable Healthcare System as a system that improves, maintains or restores health, while minimizing negative impacts on the environment and leveraging opportunities to restore and improve it, to the benefit of the health and well-being of current and future generations.

Carbon Footprint – It is the total greenhouse gas emission caused by an individual, event, organization, place, or community. Why is this important to know? Well, global healthcare’s carbon footprint is equivalent to 4.4% of the net global emissions. This means that if global healthcare was a country, it would be the 5th largest emitter on the planet. 

Studies over the decade have provided numbers that essentially say that the present healthcare system might be a threat to sustainability. A recent study from the US conducted by Eckelman and Sherman et al showed that in 2013 the healthcare sector was responsible for significant fractions of national air pollution emissions and impacts, including acid rain (12%), greenhouse gas emissions (10%), smog formation (10%), criteria air pollutants (9%), stratospheric ozone depletion (1%), and carcinogenic and non-carcinogenic air toxins (1–2%). This suggests that healthcare may be having a bigger effect on climate change and ecological degradation than many people may have realised so far.

Honestly though, from where do these emissions come from? What is generating them? The sources of healthcare’s carbon footprint are product use and disposal, transport, and energy consumption from various technologically advanced medical equipment. Other threats to sustainability are plastic production, inadequate disposal of medical waste, and excessive use of pharmaceuticals. 

Hold on a second, where does physiotherapy fit in with all this? Why is physiotherapy relevant to the discussion of the environment? How many non-renewable resources like paper clinical records and disposable products are physiotherapists using in their practice? How much electricity are we using to run our clinics and manage patient care electronically? How many technologically-dependent diagnostic procedures are we using in place of our traditional hands-on clinical skills in the course of our daily practice? These may be small as a contribution to the overall environmental cost of healthcare, but even reducing some of these costs might make an impact.

Let’s be honest, it is highly impossible to completely stop using these resources because they are necessary for patient health. If the patient requires electrotherapy, then he simply requires electrotherapy, and nothing can be done about it, but what if I tell you that encouraging the practice of physiotherapy itself is a facilitator to the betterment of the environment? Want to know how? Keep reading!

Firstly, direct and first-contact physiotherapy consultations may stop a person from getting an MRI, which reduces greenhouse emissions. Negligible? Yes, very much so, but still a step forward. Of course, if need be, an MRI must be taken, but you’ll be shocked as to how less you actually need an MRI scan.

As physiotherapists, we have a unique opportunity to contribute to planetary health and well-being. We can advocate for and encourage active transport concepts such as cycling to and from work. There are of course challenges and barriers to active transport, but European countries like the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany have successfully implemented this concept by ensuring that the infrastructure and other necessary facilities are set up for this initiative. 

Telehealth or telerehabilitation is another massive way to reduce transport costs and consumption of fuel. It encourages homestay and also saves time. 

Physiotherapy is related to the environment in many more ways that are yet to be explored. Some of these may include: 

  • The understanding and role of animals in animal physiotherapy, as well as animal-assisted physiotherapy
  • The role of plants in physiotherapy clinic rooms, the rehabilitation process and experience, in client lives, health and living spaces, as nutrition, medicine, clothing, shelter, and more. 

 

Saving the environment is surprisingly very satisfying, but there’s more. Incorporating environmentalism into physiotherapy also improves patient outcomes! Physiotherapy can most certainly involve the outdoors, such as in sports rehabilitation and aquatic therapy. The outdoors may also be beneficial to certain cardiac patients provided that the setting is in a calm and mostly natural area with birds chirping and cool winds brushing past. 

 

Environmental physiotherapy is a promising approach that combines the principles of physiotherapy with the healing power of nature. It offers several benefits, including improved recovery outcomes, reduced stress, and increased overall well-being. Moreover, environmental physiotherapy has the potential to promote sustainability by encouraging people to reconnect with nature and adopt eco-friendly practices.

 

However, it is important to note that environmental physiotherapy may not always be feasible or practical, and there may be situations where it is impossible to follow eco-friendly methods. In such cases, it is essential to find a balance between environmental sustainability and healthcare needs. Nevertheless, it is essential to continue to explore and implement eco-friendly approaches in healthcare wherever possible. Every contribution, no matter how small, can make a significant difference in preserving our planet and ensuring the sustainability of our environment for future generations. By taking care of the environment, we can also take care of ourselves and our communities.

 

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