I had a minor medical emergency on Tuesday night. It was nowhere near life threatening, however I was in a great deal of pain and it was serious enough that it needed to be dealt with sooner rather than later. Unfortunately all the walk-in clinics were closed, so the only option left was a trip to emergency. Fun times!
I was there all night long, got the necessary treatment and prescription for antibiotics and fell exhausted into bed at 5:30 in the morning, grateful for modern medical science and wondering how in the world I would manage to get through a workday on two hours of sleep.
As I sat in the emergency waiting room and looked around me, I wondered about all the resources that are required to keep a hospital functioning 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. How much electricity? How much coal? How much oil? How much gas? Water? Food?
When I was called to a bed and waited for the doctor to come in see me I looked at all the medical implements around me. Everything was an individually packaged, single use item, mostly made of and wrapped in plastic. How much waste does a hospital generate?
I saw biohazard boxes, dispensers of antibacterial cleansers, bottles of disinfectants, industrial strength cleaners. How many chemicals get disposed of, flushed down toilets and rinsed down drains?
I wondered what a hospital's ecological footprint would be. I suspect it's pretty darn big. I also imagine that a lot of it is really necessary. For example, it is not appropriate to reuse most medical implements. But I also think there is probably room for improvement. How do hospitals source and prepare their food? How much do they waste? How do they dispose of it?
I then wondered what the future of health care might look like in an era of energy scarcity.
Every single aspect of my trip to emergency was reliant on cheap fossil fuels, from the cab ride there and back home (with a trip to the nearest 24hr pharmacy in between) and including my antibiotics. (Here is an interesting article on "Medicine After Oil", about health care in the US, that gives a really good overview of how much oil goes into our medicine.)
In the future, will I be able to rely on a fossil fuel dependent system if I am faced with another health crisis? What alternatives will be available? Is anybody even thinking about large scale alternatives?
On a personal level, I am learning about alternatives I can use to administer to my own health and I've written before about how my kitchen is my medicine cabinet, but not everything can be cured with herbs and spices. What will I do for more serious and complicated health issues that will most certainly arise as I get older? What about unexpected accidents? Broken bones? How will we be able to help the very medically fragile? What about all the baby boomers who will most assuredly have complex needs?
I have a feeling that many people don't think about this aspect of an energy crisis. Quite a few people think that peak oil means that we will simply drive and fly less, gas will be more expensive and we will get all our energy from nuclear power.
I think that we are much more reliant on oil than most of us who are so used to taking it for granted realise and that health care as we know it is just one of the many aspects of our taken for granted reality that is going to fundamentally change in the future.
My minor medical crisis on Tuesday cost me no more than cab fare, the price of my prescription and a nights sleep. In the future, could it cost me my life?