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Healthcare sustainability is no longer a ‘nice to have’ addition, but it’s critical for future success for both innovators and our NHS partners

Written by: Kathy Scott - 16th January 2023

In the NHS report Delivering a Net Zero National Health Service, the opening paragraph highlights that climate change is a healthcare emergency which threatens the foundations of good health and which has direct and immediate consequences for all of us. But what does this mean for our innovators and for our NHS colleagues?

It means that thinking of the environmental impact of your innovation or service is now an integral part of designing and delivering any healthcare solutions. Many studies have demonstrated how the climate emergency is impacting on our health, from how polluted cities exacerbate respiratory conditions such as asthma or how extreme weather events such as floods lead to a rising demand for healthcare due to injury or infection. The work we do today to reduce the impact of climate change will help reduce health problems in the future.

Over the past few years, we have supported many innovators to help spread and adopt solutions that not only help improve patient care and outcomes, but can help the NHS meet its Net Zero targets. For instance’s Minuteful Kidney digital diagnostic service enables diabetic patients to take a urine sample at home that can help the early diagnosis of chronic kidney disease. This digital solution has helped GP practices to increase the uptake of the urine test while reducing the NHS carbon footprint by avoiding the need for patients to visit their GP practice and releasing staff time.

You often read in the news how major corporations are adopting greener initiatives and making their practices more sustainable. The NHS is a huge player as one of the biggest healthcare systems in the world with more than 1.3 million employees. It can, and is, playing a pivotal role in the battle against climate change. We don’t necessarily need to look at big projects across the whole system, collectively we can have a large impact through a multitude of initiatives.

A good example is our work in Hull with the NHS and AstraZeneca on the multi award-winning SENTINEL PLUS programme which aims to deliver improvements in care for people with uncontrolled asthma by optimising the use of anti-inflammatory ‘preventer’ inhalers, which treat the underlying inflammation, while reducing the reliance on and prescribing of blue ‘reliever’ inhalers and the greenhouse gas emissions they produce. Since starting the programme in November 2020, there has been a reduction in prescriptions for blue inhalers of more than 27,000 units saving an estimated 773 tonnes of carbon, or 966 transatlantic flights from Leeds to New York. The project has now been rolled out in other geographical areas.

Innovators – your green credentials could help you win more contracts

From April 2023 for all the contracts above £5 million per annum, the NHS will require suppliers to publish a carbon reduction plan and from April 2024 this will cover all procurements. If you have a healthcare sustainability plan already in place and can demonstrate how your innovation can contribute to reduce the carbon footprint, you will have a competitive advantage on other suppliers and your tender will have more chances to be successful.

Many other countries like the UK are setting green targets for their healthcare system and developing sustainable innovations from the outset will provide you with a head start in maturing markets.

You might have to clearly articulate what the green credentials of your innovation are. Some are easy to see, such as separating environmentally harmful nitrous oxide into its harmless components of nitrogen oxide and oxygen, a technology provided by MedClair. But it is more difficult to see the sustainability angle in a programme such as our national AHSN Network’s FOCUS ADHD in which QbTest uses objective assessments to diagnose this condition. QbTest helps to improve patient experience requiring fewer appointments before being diagnosed. This allows staff to spend time with more patients, reduce waiting lists and has a positive impact on the environment by decreasing the number of clinical visits necessary for a diagnosis, thus reducing carbon emissions from travel to clinical settings.

Some key areas to consider when looking at healthcare sustainability

This is a fast-moving field, but there are some initial steps that could help you in your journey:

  • There are loads of carbon calculators out there, most are very good. Look at several, choose one that works for you and use it consistently, so you get a feel for your journey.
  • If possible, consider the life cycle of your innovation when calculating the impact – what looks really good on the end impact may not be so positive when you look at the early stages.
  • Don’t panic if your innovation has a negative impact; use this as a starting point and work through how you can reduce the environmental harm.
  • Involve procurement and finance colleagues at the outset of an innovation journey – and don’t stop there!
  • Collaborate – there is so much enthusiasm for this agenda. Industry and NHS partnerships can be really productive and the AHSN in your region can help you broker these; there might be other organisations that have already implemented some of the solutions you are considering, you could work together to further develop them.

How we can support your innovation

Environmental sustainability is one of our core priorities and we can support your journey at every stage and every level and assist with the development and uptake of innovations that support this crucial agenda.

Work with your local AHSN, we can help you assess the impact of your innovation; help to develop a sustainability plan or identifying innovations/best practice from other sectors and bring these into the NHS.

If you would like to discuss how we can work together and support your initiative, please do get in touch by emailing us at