changing ecology

Dawn of the Anthropocene: Five ways we know humans have triggered a new geological epoch

We're in a new geological era, say scientists.

Is the Anthropocene real? That is, the vigorously debated concept of a new geological epoch driven by humans.

Our environmental impact is indeed profound – there is little debate about that – but is it significant on a geological timescale, measured over millions of years? And will humans leave a distinctive mark upon the layers of rocks that geologists of 100,000,000AD might use to investigate the present day?

Together with other members of the Anthropocene Working Group we’ve just published a study in Science that pulls much of the evidence together.

The case for the Anthropocene might be distilled into five strands:

1. Carbon in the atmosphere

Carbon is important, both due to its growing impact on global warming and because it leaves long-lived geological traces. The increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – now higher than at any time in at least the past few million years – can be found as fossil bubbles in the geologically short-lived “rock” that is polar ice.

But there are wider and more long-lived traces too, in the form of changed patterns of carbon isotopes (absorbed by every living thing) and in tiny, virtually indestructible particles of fly ash released from furnaces and chimneys. These are leaving an indelible signal in rock and soil strata now accumulating.

2. We’re adding chemicals to the environment

Other chemical cycles have been even more greatly perturbed. There is now about twice as much reactive nitrogen at the Earth’s surface than in the past, courtesy of the Haber-Bosch process used in the fertiliser industry, while the amount of phosphorus at the surface has also doubled. This is changing the biology and chemistry of environments ranging from far northern lakes to the growing ocean “dead zones” found along polluted coasts.

The artificial radionuclides released by atom bomb explosions are (for now) environmentally trivial by comparison – but they have also left a distinct and measurable marker worldwide.

3. We’ve made new materials that may outlast us

Human ingenuity and industry are creating thousands of new materials that wouldn’t exist without us, from compounds now harder than diamond to plastic, which has seen extraordinary growth from negligible pre-World War II to something like 300m tons a year today.

Many of these materials take a long time to wear out, and they’ve been very widely disturbed across the planet. Almost nowhere is safe. Even most mud samples taken from remote ocean beds now contain plastic fragments. Buried in sediment, these materials may be preserved over geological timescales, forming new rocks and rapidly-evolving “technofossils” for our descendents to marvel at.

4. Life itself is changing

The rate of extinctions is now many times above background levels, and is accelerating.

But arguably of yet greater significance, currently, to modern biology – and hence to future palaeontology – is the unprecedented redistribution of plant and animal species between continents and across oceans.

This homogenisation of life on Earth is being increasingly joined by human-directed evolution of living species in agriculture, to create entirely novel biological assemblages such as broccoli or maize, which don’t exist in nature.

5. It all adds up

The changes are comparable in scale to those of earlier epochs. The extraordinarily wide range of geological signals associated with the Anthropocene – many of them new to the history of this planet – means comparison with earlier epochs is not straightforward. But putting the evidence together indicates an overall magnitude of change at least as large as that which ushered in the Holocene, our current geological epoch, and most other epochs.

Hence, there is a solid basis for considering that the Anthropocene – especially if defined as beginning in the mid-20th century – is real within the context of our planet’s history.

This doesn’t necessarily mean the term will be formalised anytime soon. Other arguments come into play in the debate, and some widely-used geological time terms such as the Precambrian (the planet’s first four billion years) still don’t have an official definition. But it does mean that humans are moving the Earth system from the comparative environmental stability of the Holocene into a new, evolving planetary state. And the impact will be felt by all human generations to come.

Jan A. Zalasiewicz, Senior Lecturer in Palaeobiology, University of Leicester and Mark Williams, Professor of Palaeobiology, University of Leicester

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Putting the patient first - insights for hospitals to meet customer service expectations

These emerging solutions are a fine balance between technology and the human touch.

As customers become more vocal and assertive of their needs, their expectations are changing across industries. Consequently, customer service has gone from being a hygiene factor to actively influencing the customer’s choice of product or service. This trend is also being seen in the healthcare segment. Today good healthcare service is no longer defined by just qualified doctors and the quality of medical treatment offered. The overall ambience, convenience, hospitality and the warmth and friendliness of staff is becoming a crucial way for hospitals to differentiate themselves.

A study by the Deloitte Centre for Health Solutions in fact indicates that good patient experience is also excellent from a profitability point of view. The study, conducted in the US, analyzed the impact of hospital ratings by patients on overall margins and return on assets. It revealed that hospitals with high patient-reported experience scores have higher profitability. For instance, hospitals with ‘excellent’ consumer assessment scores between 2008 and 2014 had a net margin of 4.7 percent, on average, as compared to just 1.8 percent for hospitals with ‘low’ scores.

This clearly indicates that good customer service in hospitals boosts loyalty and goodwill as well as financial performance. Many healthcare service providers are thus putting their efforts behind: understanding constantly evolving customer expectations, solving long-standing problems in hospital management (such as long check-out times) and proactively offering a better experience by leveraging technology and human interface.

The evolving patient

Healthcare service customers, who comprise both the patient and his or her family and friends, are more exposed today to high standards of service across industries. As a result, hospitals are putting patient care right on top of their priorities. An example of this in action can be seen in the Sir Ganga Ram Hospital. In July 2015, the hospital launched a ‘Smart OPD’ system — an integrated mobile health system under which the entire medical ecosystem of the hospital was brought together on a digital app. Patients could use the app to book/reschedule doctor’s appointments and doctors could use it to access a patient’s medical history, write prescriptions and schedule appointments. To further aid the process, IT assistants were provided to help those uncomfortable with technology.

The need for such initiatives and the evolving nature of patient care were among the central themes of the recently concluded Abbott Hospital Leadership Summit. The speakers included pundits from marketing and customer relations along with leaders in the healthcare space.

Among them was the illustrious speaker Larry Hochman, a globally recognised name in customer service. According to Mr. Hochman, who has worked with British Airways and Air Miles, patients are rapidly evolving from passive recipients of treatment to active consumers who are evaluating their overall experience with a hospital on social media and creating a ‘word-of-mouth’ economy. He talks about this in the video below.

Play

As the video says, with social media and other public platforms being available today to share experiences, hospitals need to ensure that every customer walks away with a good experience.

The promise gap

In his address, Mr. Hochman also spoke at length about the ‘promise gap’ — the difference between what a company promises to deliver and what it actually delivers. In the video given below, he explains the concept in detail. As the gap grows wider, the potential for customer dissatisfaction increases.

Play

So how do hospitals differentiate themselves with this evolved set of customers? How do they ensure that the promise gap remains small? “You can create a unique value only through relationships, because that is something that is not manufactured. It is about people, it’s a human thing,” says Mr. Hochman in the video below.

Play

As Mr. Hochman and others in the discussion panel point out, the key to delivering a good customer experience is to instil a culture of empathy and hospitality across the organisation. Whether it is small things like smiling at patients, educating them at every step about their illness or listening to them to understand their fears, every action needs to be geared towards making the customer feel that they made the correct decision by getting treated at that hospital. This is also why, Dr. Nandkumar Jairam, Chairman and Group Medical Director, Columbia Asia, talked about the need for hospitals to train and hire people with soft skills and qualities such as empathy and the ability to listen.

Striking the balance

Bridging the promise gap also involves a balance between technology and the human touch. Dr. Robert Pearl, Executive Director and CEO of The Permanente Medical Group, who also spoke at the event, wrote about the example of Dr. Devi Shetty’s Narayana Health Hospitals. He writes that their team of surgeons typically performs about 900 procedures a month which is equivalent to what most U.S. university hospitals do in a year. The hospitals employ cutting edge technology and other simple innovations to improve efficiency and patient care.

The insights gained from Narayana’s model show that while technology increases efficiency of processes, what really makes a difference to customers are the human touch-points. As Mr. Hochman says, “Human touch points matter more because there are less and less of them today and are therefore crucial to the whole customer experience.”

Play

By putting customers at the core of their thinking, many hospitals have been able to apply innovative solutions to solve age old problems. For example, Max Healthcare, introduced paramedics on motorcycles to circumvent heavy traffic and respond faster to critical emergencies. While ambulances reach 30 minutes after a call, the motorcycles reach in just 17 minutes. In the first three months, two lives were saved because of this customer-centric innovation.

Hospitals are also looking at data and consumer research to identify consumer pain points. Rajit Mehta, the MD and CEO of Max Healthcare Institute, who was a panelist at the summit, spoke of the importance of data to understand patient needs. His organisation used consumer research to identify three critical areas that needed work - discharge and admission processes for IPD patients and wait-time for OPD patients. To improve wait-time, they incentivised people to book appointments online. They also installed digital kiosks where customers could punch in their details to get an appointment quickly.

These were just some of the insights on healthcare management gleaned from the Hospital Leadership Summit hosted by Abbott. In over 150 countries, Abbott is working with hospitals and healthcare professionals to improve the quality of health services.

To read more content on best practices for hospital leaders, visit Abbott’s Bringing Health to Life portal here.

This article was produced on behalf of Abbott by the Scroll.in marketing team and not by the Scroll.in editorial staff.