Healthcare vs the environment: is there an answer to this sustainability problem?


There isn’t an industry on the planet who can say they 100% avoid impacting the planet. Some are certainly more successful than others. And as environmental concern grows more severe, businesses are responding to pressure to become more sustainable. 

But there are undeniable challenges when concern for the environment, society, and the economy intersect. The NHS is the perfect example. But how can a public body as large – and as essential – as the NHS better control their impact?

Waste disposal

Over the past two years, various reports have shined a light on a concerning waste disposal problem in the NHS. One of their contractors, Healthcare Environmental Services, was found to have excessive levels of clinical waste at five different sites. The issue was large enough to launch a criminal investigation as to why this contractor responsible for dozens of hospital trusts struggled to get rid of their waste.

They had hundreds of tonnes of human biological and medical waste piling up across the country. According to HES, certain restrictions were preventing them from incinerating the waste in a timely fashion. It left them with a build-up of hazardous medical waste, including amputated body parts, surgical equipment, and pharmaceutical waste. 

Despite pressure from the Environment Agency and the government, it doesn’t change the fact the rules on incineration have limited the amount they can handle. This is where the debate starts: which is more important, environmental conservation or healthcare services?

Waste management

Here’s a prime example. It’s hard to deny the need for single-use medical equipment, like gloves, as it prevents diseases from spreading any further. But at the same time, it’s also hard to deny the impact they have on the environment, especially when landfill space is already near capacity. It’s a classic Catch-22 between doing your duty to the environment and your duty to the populous.

A lot of surgical equipment is potentially recyclable. But much of it isn’t recycled, despite going through extensive sterilisation after use. There are some companies who specialise in collecting metal surgical waste. They use state-of-the-art robotic autoclave systems to ensure thorough cleaning and sterilisation, before returning equipment to the medical facility. 

It can be a headache for institutions like the NHS. They might be responsible for 6.3% of England’s total carbon emissions but how can they cut this down while still providing excellent care? It’s estimated the cumulative cost to the NHS over the next 16 years will be around £9.4 billion for particulate matter, and £9.2 billion for nitrogen dioxide. If they can do something to prevent this, surely they would. The question is how? 

Small wins

Calling the problem of sustainability within the NHS and healthcare ‘complex’ is an understatement. However, with support from the Sustainable Development Unit (SDU), the NHS is making progress, monitoring the four key areas: carbon footprint, air pollution, water use, and waste management. Over 12 years, there has been a 19% reduction in the organisation’s carbon footprint despite a 27% increase in activity, and the impact of introducing more efficient management processes shouldn’t be overlooked. 

The NHS has been introducing new technology into their management processes over the last decade, reducing paper waste and driving efficiency in daily processes, such as in endoscopy theatres, reducing the amount of energy needed to perform each task as well as vastly improving patient care. While medical facilities work on solving the larger sustainability problems in the NHS, individual alliances, hospitals, and departments have the power to make the biggest difference by introducing vital technological changes. It’s one step towards more sustainable and efficient healthcare systems for all. 

Inform People is a tailored platform for multinational and large organisations. It has provided bespoke tools to healthcare facilities to help transform vital processes to improve theatre performance, reduce tasks for practitioners, and give live oversight into what is happening in the here and now, spotting trends for potential improvements. For more information about how our tools can improve sustainability in the NHS, visit our website. Alternatively, you can call us on 0161 713 4104.

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