The future of healthcare sustainability: looking beyond emissions to a more sustainable future

  • November 28, 2022
  • 5 min read

The provision of quality healthcare systems is a global priority, however increasingly, there is an additional imperative to ensure that healthcare is delivered in a more sustainable way, one which minimises our negative impact on the planet.

Historically, little attention has been paid to the sustainability credentials of the healthcare industry, because of the life-saving function it fulfils in our society. However, in 2019, the pharmaceutical industry alone was responsible for 13% more emissions than the automotive industry – a statistic which may be surprising to some, yet only accounts for a small proportion of the sector as a whole.

Public hospitals – and the healthcare sector in general – are responsible for a significant proportion of the emissions which contribute to climate change. Furthermore, the waste produced by the healthcare system is often dealt with problematically – either deposited in landfill or incinerated – creating additional environmental concerns; a problem which has been further exacerbated since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to a massive increase in the use of PPE. 

Delivering sustainability in healthcare is a challenging task; unlike in many other industries, compromises cannot be made in regard to the health and wellbeing of the population in order to attain future sustainability goals. However, as a major contributor to global emissions, the healthcare sector needs to address these issues urgently. There are a number of steps that the industry as a whole can take, in order to significantly reduce its environmental impact. Any initiatives to improve healthcare sustainability should reflect a multi-pronged approach which includes: reducing emissions in healthcare settings, as well as those generated through procurement, logistics, and the production of goods and services; cleaning up supply chains by contracting only with suppliers which can demonstrate strong environmental credentials; reducing wasteful consumption; and finally, streamlining services in healthcare settings.

The McKinsey Report on Sustainability and Health underlines that: ‘mitigation of further environmental and climate change will… involve efforts to reduce the footprint of healthcare providers and healthcare industries around the world”. In response to the current climate crisis, the McKinsey Health Institute (MHI) is now focused on addressing key issues such as, “How can data and technology be leveraged to prevent, predict, and prepare for the health implications of gradual warming, changes in humidity, and extreme weather events?”

As we move forward toward the shared goal of reducing our impact on the planet, the inescapable reality is the pressing need to use our limited resources wisely, by maximising effectiveness and minimising waste.

Part of this picture is certainly an increased reliance on data, which has the power to help us ensure that all services – not just healthcare – are more targeted and efficient. 

Sustainability in healthcare requires cooperation on a global scale from individuals, corporations and governments. As one of the largest and fastest-growing sectors of the global economy, the healthcare sector has a responsibility to decarbonise quickly, not only to align itself with the Paris Agreement, but also to lead by example, and demonstrate its commitment to global health goals. 

The UK Government is strongly committed to improving sustainability in healthcare and in 2020, the NHS became the first health system to commit to achieving net zero carbon by 2040. The NHS Long Term Plan focuses on making sustainability improvements across a range of metrics, including: “provid(ing) digital services and tools to give people more control over their own health and the care they receive from the NHS” and “giv(ing) health and care staff the technology they need to help them complete administrative tasks more quickly, freeing up time to spend with patients”.

This sentiment was supported by NHS Digital’s Paperless 2020, which asserts that better use of data and technology can “reduce the administrative burden for care professionals” and NHS England’s Digital Transformation, which prioritises the introduction of digital tools in the healthcare sector, to: “help health and care professionals communicate better and enable people to access the care they need quickly and easily, when it suits them.”

In addition to governmental and NHS initiatives, organisations like the Sustainable Healthcare Coalition, the AHSN (Academic Health Science Network), and many providers in the private sector are working hard to make sustainable healthcare a reality through ongoing research, innovation, and collaboration. 

Today, the ‘bigger picture’ of sustainability in healthcare requires the sector to undergo an advanced transformation which incorporates more than – although does not exclude – traditional issues such as emissions and efficiency. Any future discussions around sustainability in healthcare must also include broader issues such as the transition to a circular economy; increased ESG investment; corporate and governmental  transparency; and a reduction in global health inequalities.

The digital transformation of health systems through the use of technology is an important part of the sustainability picture. Not only can digitisation help us build more efficient and sustainable healthcare systems for the future, it has the power to transform patient care in the present.  

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