2022 NHS Confed Expo: Using digital innovation to deliver a net-zero NHS

Last month, Ruth Bradbury, Interim Head of DigitalHealth.London, attended the 2022 NHS Confed Expo. Here, she summarises two key themes that were discussed in a session around how digital innovation can be used to help deliver a net-zero NHS, the session also featured DigitalHealth.London Accelerator company, Ufonia.

For the emissions the NHS control directly (the NHS Carbon Footprint), the NHS will reach net zero by 2040, with an ambition to reach an 80% reduction by 2028 to 2032. For the emissions that the NHS can influence (the NHS Carbon Footprint Plus), the NHS will reach net zero by 2045, with an ambition to reach an 80% reduction by 2036 to 2039. Below are two key themes that were identified in being key to ensuring we meet these targets:

Supporting the green agenda through programmes which support innovators

There are a number of awards that help support digital health innovators who can make a carbon impact and help contribute to the NHS reaching its net zero targets.

The Accelerated Access Collaborative (AAC) supports the green agenda through programmes such as SBRI net zero grants which contribute to the reduction of care miles emissions, support of low carbon decision making and the reduction of nitrous oxide omissions. All grant awards run by the AAC have a requirement for companies to demonstrate their commitment to green sustainability.

For example, Ufonia, a company currently on the DigitalHealth.London Accelerator programme, has been supported by two AAC backed grants – the AI in Healthcare award and the SBRI Phase One net zero award. Their innovation, Dora, is an automated telephone system, which provides a scalable way to avoid the impact of face-to-face health care interactions. The net zero award is targeting head and neck cancer referral triage to reduce the carbon footprint of the NHS through reduced patient travel and single use consumables use in out-patient appointments.

Trusts that have been using Dora have seen a 63% reduction in face to face follow up appointments which is above the NHS target of 25%. Additionally, 10% of patients have been removed from NHS waiting list in one Trust. Both of these figures contribute to net zero ambitions by reducing carbon travel to hospital settings and reducing estate needs, and Ufonia is now currently working with the South-West London ICS to deliver the SBRI grant with the support of the DigitalHealth.London Accelerator and the AHSN network.

Educating and motivating the NHS workforce

However, in order for the NHS to achieve net-zero, it is critical to have champions across the workforce to generate, promote and maintain conversations and education around net-zero.

Improving awareness of why net zero is important is key, and through contributing to the training for NHS Boards on net zero we can foster a cultural change, helping embed the commitment to carbon reduction throughout the organisation. Health Education England is currently scoping how digital technologies (such as virtual, augmented and mixed reality technology) can support the training of NHS staff.

Incentives are also key in ensuring organisations take a net zero approach and currently, NHS organisations have targets in place – but solutions that save carbon will also save money for the NHS, so it’s also equally important for organisations to think about this when building business cases for digital innovations. Nevertheless, having an educated and motivated workforce will be fundamental in propelling this forward.

Final thoughts

It is clear that the NHS is pushing the boundaries for net zero and sustainability. However, this will be slow to happen unless we consider how we can bring people along the journey – big changes are unlikely to happen quickly so we need to think small and slow. If we create a movement and grow champions through education, then we can make a positive change.

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