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Peak Health

Hospital room (Denmark, 2005)
Image via Wikipedia


Health Care services are entirely dependent on petroleum products – just about every book on the subject of our energy situation has pointed this out, and acknowledged that the level of health care we enjoy today is not sustainable without plentiful oil.

This NYTimes article is one of the first mainstream attempts I’ve seen at getting this information out the the world.

Health Care’s Oil Problem – Idea of the Day Blog – NYTimes.com

“Oil is the glue in our medical system that holds it all together,” says a consultant on energy and health. And it has always been thus, suggests a study in Public Health Reports, which links the remarkable improvement in health over the last 150 years to cheap, easily accessible energy. The study urges preparedness for “peak petroleum” and conservation in a health care infrastructure that has long favored speed and convenience.

What does a post peak petroleum health care system look like? The most recent release from the Transition Network – “The Transition Timeline – for a local, resilient future” by Shaun Chamberlin gives a concise glimpse at a lower carbon future health care. Shaun focuses on the following five areas as examples of how petroleum and intricately related technologies have shaped health care…

  • Inefficient buildings
  • Energy-intensive modern equipment
  • Medical products reliance on petroleum
  • Technology replacing traditional skills
  • Centralization and Specialization

Climate change has it’s own role to play in the future health care issues we will face, and this is dependent on where you live. Coastal storms, floods, drought and heatwaves are all more likely in the future, each bringing serious health concerns and weakening the existing systems built on cheap, abundant oil.

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Resilient Health Care

We need to enact a “cultural story change” to bring health care to a place of sustainability. An often used example regarding alternate health care arrangements is Cuba, with a similar (or better) life expectancy, but using far less energy and engaging more localized services with a higher doctor to patient ratio than the level of service we have come to expect. A resilient future health care system will have to view death differently too – people will have to better acknowledge just where they are headed. Much of the fear of death is likely related to the cold clinical calculated medical environment in which decisions are made and that there is an expectation to be “fixed up” by the doctors and to be able to go out and bat another innings. Many spiritual aspects of life and death have been steamrolled by modern medicine, and a return to what we know as “alternative medicines” may be necessary to regain respect for our bodies and our health.

Ironically, one of the blogs I read Aguanomics, posted a short article on Health Care today as well, and I think the end aim is similar, a resilient health care system based on human scale relationships…

Bottom Line: We will not (or cannot) fix our healthcare system without strengthening patient-doctor relationships. Single payer would do that, but it can also work with multiple payers (gov’t or private insurance) and providers, e.g., as car insurance does.

Source: Aguanomics: A Few (More) Thoughts on Health Care

Finding ways to do health care without the massive building costs, energy costs in running those buildings and the equipment inside, without the disposable petroleum based convenience and the re-localization of services to provide more frontline wellness care, rather than the current emergency based sickness care.

Some of the health care conveniences and products we enjoy and rely on may prove to be a part of the best use of remaining fossil fuels we could imagine, but without an entire systems audit of the existing system against the peak oil lens, we will never understand the best direction for the future of this industry and service.

Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada. If I post something here that you find helpful as you navigate the world of engineering, planning and building communities, that’s wonderful. But when push comes to shove: This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.