Healthy Planet, Healthy People; A Family Doctor's Journey

World Family Doctor Day Article

This is part of a series of articles written for World Family Doctor Day, 19 May 2024, on the theme "Healthy Planet, Healthy People".

Dr Haslina Ma

When it came to career choice, two paths appealed to me most: the noble pursuit of medicine or the passionate call of environmental activism. The latter, as you might guess, didn’t sit well with my parents! Yet, life has its own script, and I eventually found myself donning the white coat of a family physician.

When I set up my practice at the end of 2017 (I managed it until 2023 before venturing into academia), I was determined to make a difference, not just in the lives of my patients, but also in the health of our planet. I started small—by halving the size of the paper for medical certificates and receipts. Why use a whole sheet when half could suffice? It was my own little way of telling the forests, "I've got your back." We only printed reports, labels and documents if absolutely necessary, and the paper in my office also enjoyed a ‘two-sided’ existence, ‘flipping the narrative’ on wastefulness.

General practice clinics are known to operate at high electrical cost due to long operating hours but I was determined to make my clinic a beacon of energy efficiency, with lighting and equipment that were as energy efficient as possible. Water-saving taps and measures were also installed with such enthusiasm, my employees used to joke that I was preparing them for a desert expedition!

Plastic? Only when necessary, and that too had to be the biodegradable kind; except for the gloves—hygiene had to trump environmentalism at unavoidable times. My employees and I embraced minimalism with the zeal of monks, ensuring that every bandage, every swab, every piece of equipment was used to its fullest potential before we bade it farewell.

Recycling soon became the official mantra in my clinic. Distilled water bottles (for medication reconstitution) and medicine carton boxes were reincarnated into medicine containers and plant pots, before being sent off to the ladies who collected recyclables for profit. Finding new purpose in a world that too often discards the old in favour of the new was difficult, but it certainly was not impossible.

Last but not least, was the culinary diplomacy I engaged in with the local food merchants. Our alliance was sealed with reusable containers, turning every meal delivery into a small victory for sustainability. In reciprocity, I was to return the used containers to their premises before the end of the day. It was a dance of mutual respect and environmental stewardship, one that had my patients and the planet applauding in unison. I soon became known around the community as the quirky lady who avoided plastic containers!

For the short stint of running a practice, in this small corner of the world, I became an accidental environmentalist, proving that one can indeed take care of human health while being kind to the Earth. And as for my parents? They were happy I didn’t end up hugging trees—although I've been known to give a firm handshake to a sturdy plant on occasion.