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Healthcare services are facing a critical challenge to reduce carbon emissions and make patient care more environmentally friendly.

Health services are high emitters of greenhouse gases due to energy required to run hospitals and surgeries and the travel associated with patient care. As a result, the healthcare sector is under increasing pressure to deliver services in more environmentally sustainable ways.

The NHS is responsible for 4% of England’s total carbon emissions through transport, heating, lighting and procurement of medicines and other goods; transport within the health sector is estimated to emit 3.4 million tonnes of CO2 each year (18% of all healthcare emissions); and NHS-related traffic accounts for 5% of all road traffic in England.

The healthcare sector is under increasing pressure to deliver services in more environmentally sustainable ways.

Sustainable healthcare

A range of initiatives are already under way, such as the Greener NHS project, setting the NHS the challenge of becoming the world’s first completely net carbon zero health service by 2045.

The NHS faces diverse challenges here, 59% of NHS carbon emissions are linked to procured medication and goods, 24% to direct energy use in buildings and 17% to patient and staff travel. Pharmaceutical production alone accounts for 22% of NHS emissions.

Even more than with other industries, health and the environment are inextricably linked. For example, long-term exposure to poor air quality is known to cause cardiovascular and respiratory disease. This compounds the need for health services to become more sustainable.

Digital health

The NHS is an acknowledged world leader in developing a strategic approach towards sustainability, with the establishment of an NHS Sustainable Development Unit and the NHS Carbon Reduction Strategy.

As the UK’s biggest employer, the NHS has many diverse ways to adopt greener approaches to delivery of care. Switching from disposable to reusable items is a key step, as is reducing use of plastic in medical supplies and switching to paperless systems.

Digital health solutions provide additional opportunities to boost greener healthcare. For example, virtual consultations can reduce the number of cars on the road and advanced software solutions can reduce the number of miles travelled by NHS staff.

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