Prescribe, dispense, dispose: Pharmacists tackle the environmental impacts of health care

A team of pharmacists and pharmacy students from Monash University and the United States have collaborated to highlight the role of pharmacists in reducing healthcare-associated waste, greenhouse emissions and other environmental impacts.

The pharmacists acknowledge that environmental change is a human health issue, with the impacts of climate change often felt unevenly, perpetuating existing health inequities, both between and within countries.

Abstract image of globe cupped in handsThe paper, published in the Journal of the American College of Clinical Pharmacy, comes as the global roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines accelerates around the world. While this offers great hope in our ability to tackle the virus, the pandemic has also shown us that not everyone in the world has the same opportunities for health, including access to vaccination. In fact, the less waste we produce locally, the more vaccine is potentially available to share with less well-resourced communities.

“We need to look beyond the immediate threat of the pandemic to mitigate the emerging health problems related to global environmental change,” said Catherine Forrester, pharmacist and Teaching Associate at Monash University’s Faculty of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences.

“Pharmaceuticals account for a significant portion of health care system contributions to greenhouse gas and waste production, and can end up in waterways. Pharmacists are well-positioned to reduce these impacts through the critical roles they already play in ensuring the quality use of medicines, and avoiding ineffective or unnecessary treatments. But we also need to look at what we can do beyond this.”

The authors recognise that gaps in knowledge exist about the environmental impacts of medicines and how to balance these against their health benefits, and argue that this strengthens the case for further research and improved education of future health professionals.

“Information on specific medicines' ecological footprints is increasingly available; pharmacists can incorporate sustainability considerations into their procurement and prescribing recommendations. Pharmacists also play a critical role in public education about environmentally responsible disposal of medicines.”

The paper focuses on opportunities for educating pharmacists about sustainable health care and the links between environment and health, acknowledging the work of Indigenous scholars and knowledge of Indigenous peoples in this area.

“We wrote this paper to continue a conversation that lots of others have already started, and to highlight that this is a complex problem that can only be solved through collaboration.”

“Educators and practicing pharmacists need to learn from and work with other health professions, consumers, and other disciplines to transform health care towards environmentally sustainable models. We know why we need to tackle this – it’s time to look at what we can do better, and how,” Ms Forrester concludes.

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