Sustainability in Healthcare – why is it important?

Sustainability is defined as “The ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level … [and] avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance” or can be thought of as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. It encompasses procurement, waste, transport, energy efficiency and social human factors, including: equality in the workplace, community healthcare and healthy living. This is closely linked to public health and the impact of interventions i.e. vaccinations.

As a large organisation the impact of the NHS is colossal, employing more than 1.5 million people, and caring for 65.6 million people. Knowledge and awareness of sustainability is integral: in planning, allocating resources and the practice of healthcare professionals. The potential impact of a truly sustainable NHS expands far beyond patient and staff well-being, and financial gain. A joint strategy is needed across the NHS to plan health systems, and develop sustainable healthcare strategies. Furthermore, in 2015, the Lancet Commission concluded that our response to climate change could be “the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century”.

There is a moral responsibility. But the NHS is also bound by a number of Acts and legalisation including the The Public Services (Social Value) Act. Since 2013, there is a requirement for those who commission public services ‘to think about how they can also secure wider social, economic and environmental benefits.’ This is also in line with a number of other acts, aimed specifically about the environmental. The Climate Change Act of 2008, was introduced to ‘ensure the UK cuts its carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. The 80% target is set against a 1990 baseline.’ This is in line with the National adaption programme, Carbon Reduction Commitment Energy Efficiency Scheme (CRC) and the European Union Emissions Trading System (EU ETS).  There is a positive impact to patients and staff, and reduced negative impact on the environment. The economic gains must also not be underestimated.

It is essential to develop plans, which incorporate all areas of our diverse population. Equality, diversity and inclusion in the workplace have to be integral parts of the services which are provided. Using General Practice, as the centre of a community, the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare’s green space projects aim to reconnect staff and patients with their local natural environment.

The potential impact of a consultation with a healthcare professional is profound. This is the basis for the ‘Make Every Consultation Count’ campaign. Around 40% of the UK’s disability adjusted life years lost are attributable to tobacco, hypertension, alcohol, being overweight or being physically inactive. There is a personal and professional responsibility to empower people to make informed decisions to live a healthy lifestyle, and implement sustainable behaviour.

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