The role of digital technologies in meeting NHS net zero targets

As world leaders convene at the COP26 climate change summit, our CIO Sonia Patel, examines the role of digital in helping the NHS reach its net zero carbon emissions target.

Sonia Patel

It’s one year since the NHS in England became the world’s first health system to commit to reaching net zero carbon emissions. Despite the challenges of the pandemic, the NHS is on track to deliver on this commitment.

I am proud to say that NHSX is committed to the net zero agenda and as part of this we have built sustainability into the What Good Looks Like (WGLL) framework for digital transformation. This framework provides leaders with a common vision for good digital practice to support the acceleration of digital transformation. As a result of embedding sustainability into this framework we are beginning to hear from providers and ICSs who want to know more about how digital technology can support the net zero agenda.

Digital technologies provide many opportunities to reduce the carbon impact of health and care services.

  • In the 12 months to June 2021 virtual appointments are estimated to have saved carbon equivalent to taking 40,000 cars off the road for a year.
  • Remote monitoring technologies are estimated, over the next 3 years, to reduce patient travel by 28 million miles. That’s almost 6,000 tonnes of carbon and is equivalent to taking 1,283 cars off the road for a whole year.
  • NHS Digital has saved 4,000 tonnes of carbon by making their data hosting more efficient, including migrations to Cloud First and Crown Hosting.
  • The COVID-19 vaccination programme issued reminders by SMS rather than letters, estimated to save a carbon equivalent to taking 34 passenger vehicles off the roads for a whole year, while also contributing to reducing deforestation.
  • Between June 2020 and 2021, 247,000 GP appointments were managed, and 365,000 online consultations were completed through the NHS App, resulting in a reduction of approximately 386 tonnes of carbon dioxide.

image showing people working and traveling in a green environment

Later this year we will be publishing an assessment on the Smart Foundations element of the WGLL framework. The scope of this is much wider than sustainability but it will be the starting point in understanding where organisations are in delivering sustainable digital services. The sustainability questions will cover data storage and hosting, travel and paper reduction, end user devices, and artificial intelligence and automation.

In addition to the WGLL work, NHSX commissioned some research on the impact of digital technologies on sustainability. The focus of the research was on AI technology and has recently been published in The Journal of Climate Change and Health. It demonstrates that considerations need to be made into further quantifying the carbon impact of these technologies as we develop our strategy for AI in health and care. All NHS leaders should be having the conversation about making our healthcare more sustainable, while continuing to deliver outstanding patient care. This includes making sustainable choices for digital investment.