Healthcare sustainability – more than just money

In support of NHS Sustainability Day, the RCP highlights how healthcare sustainibility has become synonymous with money and how some simple changes could reap large environmental rewards.    

The introduction of Sustainability and Transformation Plans (STPs) and the Health Select Committee’s investigation into the sustainability of the NHS, has meant that 'sustainability’ has become synonymous with money. 

The Cambridge dictionary defines sustainability as an ‘idea that goods and services should be produced in ways that do not use resources that cannot be replaced and that do not damage the environment’. But perhaps the most useful definition describes sustainability as the ‘triple bottom line’ - a phrase first coined by the influential British author and entrepreneur John Elkington. This theory categorises the different impacts or influencers of sustainability into three headings: economic, environmental and social (traditionally profit, people and planet in a commercial setting).

The voice of sustainability’s ethical argument is loud, but now there is growing recognition that sustainability has a direct effect on our health

As a government funded organisation the NHS, rarely manages to progress past the first of these concepts. To be truly sustainable the NHS must consider how it uses finite financial and environmental resources, and the consequential impact of any waste output both on the environment and society.

The evidence is irrefutable and the impact that we are having on the environment is significant. However, some very simple changes to practice and behaviours can make substantial economic and environmental savings. For example, if every outpatient appointment and inpatient admission was reduced by one sheet of paper we could save almost 1.5 million trees per annum.

The voice of sustainability’s ethical argument is loud, and now there is also growing recognition that sustainability has a direct effect on our health. 

The NHS is the largest contributor of public sector carbon emissions. This substantial contribution to climate change is not only a threat to human health, but also in stark contrast to the core mission of the NHS – to promote, support and improve the health. Described by The Lancet as ‘the most significant threat of the 21st century’, each year the NHS produces more carbon emissions than all the planes taking off from Heathrow combined. Our recent reports Breaking the Fever: Sustainibility and climate change in the NHS and Every breath we take: The lifelong impact of air pollution show that climate change and air pollution has a direct effect on increased mortality, morbidity and health service demand.

The continuing advances in healthcare technology provide many opportunities to take stock and use innovation to transform how we deliver care

The NHS is already stretched and maintaining current standards of care is getting harder. The demand for care continues to grow faster than the availability of resources. The continuing advances in healthcare technology provide many opportunities to take stock and use innovation to transform how we deliver care, integrate technology to promote health and engage patients in managing their own health.

The RCP’s Health Informatics Unit (HIU) is working with NHS England in its pursuit of a paperless NHS by 2020. The Five Year Forward View set out guidelines for harnessing technology - the time is ripe for innovative solutions.

No one raindrop thinks it is responsible for the flood; major change comes from the aggregation of small gains and as physicians we must act. We must work together as voices of change, as activists to improve and protect patient health, leading by example to safeguard health, now and for the future. 

Download our report Breaking the fever: sustainability and climate change in the NHS to find out more about the RCP’s work on sustainability.

Follow @RCPLondon on Twitter and add your voice to the conversation using #NHSsustainability.