We urgently need to tackle climate change – and the NHS has an important part to play

The Cop26 summit shows that world leaders are now taking climate change seriously. Can technology help the NHS reduce its carbon footprint?

4th November 2021 about a 4 minute read
"As new generations herald a change in expectations, especially in relation to action around climate change, is it reasonable to expect patients to travel miles in their cars or via other methods of transport for a short consultation that could be delivered online?" Greg Allen, FCC CEO

Next Wednesday (10th November), to coincide with COP26, Future Care Capital (FCC) will be hosting an event that will convene on the margins of the conference to discuss and explore technology, climate, health and care.  We will be considering some stretching questions. 

What is the climate impact of technology development for health and care? Is tech development having a detrimental impact on climate and environment? What could this mean for population health? How can we better visualise the climate impact of technology? Are trees, car miles and transatlantic flights enough? How can tech be used in health and care settings to reduce impact on climate? What are the current unknowns and how can we address them? 

This event follows our recent FCC work with the NHSx AI Lab, including two pieces of research exploring the interactions between technology, climate, health and care. 

Using AI to improve health outcomes

The first, which can be found here, is a publication in the Journal of Climate Change and Health.  We review the use of artificial intelligence (AI) solutions to improve health outcomes, the climate impact of developing such solutions and the opportunities for using AI to improve the climate of healthcare systems. 

The second piece of research (to be launched at the end of the year) sets a starting point for better understanding of the digital technologies being adopted by the NHS and wider health and care system, the climate impacts of such technologies and the opportunities to use such technologies to improve models of care as well as reducing emissions. 

So, it is somewhat surprising that health does not appear to be a main priority on the COP26 Conference agenda when it is key in climate for both emissions and outcomes and there is, in fact, a health programme in place which is supported by the UK government as the Presidency of COP26.  If we are to slow down or reverse climate change, health and care is an important area to address.

The NHS is the first health service in world to commit to reaching carbon net zero and has set out plans for doing so.

The bricks-and-mortar model looks increasingly outdated

Part of the NHS’s strategy for reducing its carbon footprint is based on digital transformation and replacing some existing ways of working with digital approaches.  

This is an important step, but we also need to recognise that digital technologies have their own carbon footprint – see FCC’s work on the carbon impact of artificial intelligence.

When the NHS was established in 1948, times were different, and a bricks-and-mortar model of healthcare delivery emerged. Patients became used to travelling to hospital buildings and formal care settings to receive care and treatment. 

Today, we talk more about prevention and supporting people to live well and independently at home, where possible. As new generations herald a change in expectations, especially in relation to action around climate change, is it reasonable to expect patients to travel miles in their cars or via other methods of transport for a short consultation that could be delivered online? Why don’t we make better use of technology to enable self-care and monitoring, thus further reducing unnecessary journeys? We must also not forget the amount of paper that is still used for everything from patient records to appointment letters.  

Patients have a role to play

Apart from the NHS Net Zero plan, to what extent can patients themselves drive change? The younger generation is especially used to “being digital”: ordering clothes online, online banking, online study, for example. Some are already using apps such as Babylon at Hand that allow them to have a GP consultation over their smartphones. Maybe it is this generation that will drive the change away from the historic focus on the bricks-and-mortar model? Such a change could also help to make the NHS and wider care system more efficient and sustainable, too, whilst improving patient and citizen experience.  

Please register for our event on 10 November and join the debate about technology, climate, health and care.