Earth Day is widely recognised every year on 22nd April, with some showing support to the cause for the whole week or month. Earth Day aims to raise awareness around climate change and showing support towards protecting our natural resources.
The NHS have developed their own plans and strategies in recent years as they work towards being a greener health service.
We’re delving into the role technology can play in the NHS sustainability plans, with a particular focus on the rapid expansion of cloud-based systems and how online consultations can help towards a greener NHS.
What is the Greener NHS plan?
The Greener NHS programme was introduced in 2020 as they set out plans to reduce their carbon emissions. This was with the aim to become the world’s first carbon net zero health service, tacking climate change and benefiting the health of the population now and for the future.
Part of the plans included a number of priorities to support digital transformation, one of which being “supporting front-line digitisation of clinical records, clinical and operational workflow and communications, aided by digital messaging and electronic health and care record systems”.
How does technology help towards a Greener NHS?
From April 2023, all NHS suppliers with contracts above £5 million per annum will have to publish their own Carbon Reduction Plan (CRP) if they want to qualify for an NHS contract. And from 2030, all NHS suppliers will have to provide details about reducing their carbon emissions.
These steps are part of ongoing NHS plans to reduce carbon emissions, becoming net zero by 2040. Technology is a significant factor for the future of the NHS, so we recognise that digital systems will need to support the environmental sustainability that the NHS is working towards.
Less paper used
It’s well understood that by moving practices online, it reduces reliance on paper-based processes and reduces the volume of printing and posting to patients. By going digital, staff no longer have to rely on being on-site to access the documents they need. The NHS also set out plans in 2016 with an aim to go paperless, yet there is still progress to be made today to fully achieve this.
According to NHS England, around 9.5 billion miles of all road travel in England relates to NHS patients, visitors, staff and suppliers. Utilising digital systems allows some staff and patients to access care records remotely. As primary care and mental health providers increasingly adopt alternatives to face-to-face appointments, this will lead to fewer staff having to drive to work on-site and fewer patients needing to travel to appointments in person.
Optimises care location
As part of the NHS sustainable models of care, there is an increasing focus on optimising the location of care being given. Patients who can be treated or monitored in their own homes should be able to do that, and digital tools help to facilitate it. This aims to reduce the number of unnecessary appointments and the amount of travel needed, therefore lowing the number of emissions being created.
Interoperability allows systems to share data instantly rather than having to print and post physical documents. Quicker responses going directly to the relevant teams also help to reduce unnecessary energy use as the workflow is simplified and the document doesn’t have to spend any longer than necessary travelling to get to its destination.
How does the Cloud support environmental sustainability?
There are contrasting beliefs around how environmentally friendly cloud-based systems are, particularly as demand for data storage grows and more maintenance will be needed to accommodate it. However, it seems to be fairly agreed that cloud data storage is better for the environment than its predecessor – traditional on-site IT infrastructure:
Cloud-based solutions remove the need to have physical documents at hand as all data is stored using off-site servers. The reduces the need to print care records or post referral letters for other healthcare professionals to store on-site, as they can instead be sent and accessed electronically.
The servers used for cloud-based systems are external to the business using it. This removes the need for organisations to find space for a large bank of on-premises servers that needs constant power and cooling systems to maintain.
Enables remote working
Having data in the cloud means it can be accessed by those who need it, at any time and in any place. There is no need to jump in a car or on public transport just to travel all the way back to the practice to access a system only available on the work desktop. This is a particularly positive step in the direction for a greener NHS, as travel contributes to 14% of all NHS emissions.
How online consultations can help towards a Greener NHS
Primary care is continuing to face high demand, with around 27 million appointments conducted in December 2022. Just over 68% of these appointments were face-to-face, but by facilitating more online consultations, GP practices could take steps towards a greener NHS.
By attending appointments remotely, patients no longer have to travel for a face-to-face consultation at their GP surgery, helping to reduce the level of indirect emissions. Patients can also be updated digitally as documents stored in the cloud can be emailed directly through a digital system, rather than printing and posting physical letters.
Digital tools help improve integration of services by enhancing communication between professionals. This allows for speedier service delivery and less resource being wasted on unnecessary intervention. And by utilising cloud technology, staff no longer have to rely on outdated, costly and time-consuming processes to organise the right support for their patient.
Artificial intelligence (AI) can also help practices reduce unnecessary intervention, by flagging certain requests so patients can receive the right sort of care from the right people. This helps to reduce unnecessary travel or appointment booking as the patient can be directed to services better suited to their needs.
A leading example of how technology can help the NHS achieve its net zero targets is PATCHS.
PATCHS, the next generation online consultation solution, is designed to make it quick and easy for patients to keep in touch with their GP virtually.
A cloud-based solution, PATCHS employs automatic patient triage, artificial intelligence and two-way messaging to accommodate remote consultations to reduce GP practice workload, improve patient safety and minimise environmental impacts.