The awareness of and aim to increase sustainability have prospered over the last decade or so; sustainability in healthcare has been no exception. This article aims to provide an overview of sustainability in healthcare, and specifically within the NHS, and prompt further thinking about why and how improvements for the future may be implemented.
Sustainability is a widely used term, defined by the Cambridge English Dictionary as the quality of ‘causing little or no damage to the environment and therefore able to continue for a long time'. Sustainability can be applied and used in many contexts, including healthcare and the NHS. The following article discusses the definition of sustainability in the NHS in depth: https://www.nhsconfed.org/articles/sustainability-nhs-whats-theory-and-whats-practice. To summarise, sustainability can be considered to refer to the efficient and appropriate distribution of resources, to optimise their use, whilst trying to keep carbon emissions to a minimum. Varying interpretations of this definition and its application in different circumstances can potentially bring challenges when constructing specific goals for sustainability in the healthcare system.
The NHS is a considerable contributor to England’s carbon emissions (~4% as quoted by the NHS Confederation in October 2021). When considering the resources required to properly organise, run, and fund such a large and successful organisation - which is accessed by most of the country’s population, and employs more than any other organisation in England - this may not be surprising. The resources and protocols required to optimise patient care are at the heart and priority of NHS services, but more recently, improving the sustainability of these has been realised as another priority.
It has been suggested that increasing sustainability and the state of climate change have associations with overall improved health outcomes. With the environment impacting the health and wellbeing of the population, directly and indirectly, a more sustainable NHS is likely to have widespread benefits. Having recognised this, there has been a further drive to focus on protecting the environment and addressing the scope to make improvements.
As well as the improvement of the overall health of society, there is the unavoidable improvement in climate change and Earth overall, which has its own extensive downstream effects. Climate change has been a recognised problem to tackle for many years and has been an increasing priority. Preventing irreversible impacts on the climate and environment is an obvious aim and channelling improvements through such a significant and integral organisation, such as the NHS, appears beneficial and influential.
Whilst the COVID-19 pandemic has been an immediate issue to be tackled by the NHS over the past couple of years, with increasing understanding and improved treatment of the viral infection, returning to further discuss the sustainability issue may be important given the many potentially beneficial consequences as a result.
It is admirable that the NHS has recognised and has begun to act upon the desire to increase sustainability in healthcare. The ultimate aim, as it may be for most organisations, is to achieve a carbon net of zero. Should the NHS achieve this aim, it would be the first global net carbon zero healthcare service. What this means is that no emissions, overall, are released into the environment as a result of providing healthcare. Despite this, improving the use of resources and impact on the environment, no matter how small, is progress and improvement in the correct direction.
Some examples of current changes and aims that have been made to improve sustainability in healthcare include…
The COVID-19 pandemic also gave rise to an unpredictable increase in the use of PPE and testing modalities (e.g. PCR, LFT), inflating the resources required. As we improve our knowledge of the virus and understand the most effective ways for healthcare professionals to stay protected, it is hoped that the use of PPE and testing will continue to become more efficient in terms of the allocation of resources. For example, the increased selectivity for individuals required to and/or advised to test has been taking place.
There are several plans which have been constructed in order to suggest guidelines and milestones for improving sustainability in the NHS. For example…
Author: Carolina Williams
Editor: Allegra Wisking