Net Zero NHS: Five ways digitisation enables a greener health service

Net Zero NHS: Five ways digitisation enables a greener health service


Since announcing its aspirations to become the world’s first net zero health service, the NHS has pledged to achieve net zero emissions - referred to as “The NHS Carbon Footprint” - by 2040. It also aims to reach net zero on emissions indirectly influenced by the NHS, known as “The NHS Carbon Footprint Plus”, by 2045.

With its vision to respond to climate change as a means to “improve health now and for future generations”, we explore five ways digitisation promotes and empowers a greener health service in this edition of Healthcare in Focus.

1.             Paperless processes

One of the most impactful ways digitisation can help to reduce The NHS Carbon Footprint is through the eradication paper-based processes. Due to the nature of healthcare, many longstanding processes required heavy paper usage in order to capture essential data and information. However, with the use of robotic process migration (RPA), mobile apps and eForms - many paper-based processes are now a thing of the past.

Plenty of digital transformation projects within the NDL Community alone have had significant impacts on paper wastage. From the automation of GP referrals saving just short of one million sheets of paper every year at East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust, to digital observations replacing a previously paper-based process (carried out as often as every five minutes) at Midlands Partnership NHS Foundation Trust – paper wastage has long been a leading priority in NHS digital transformation projects.

However, deforestation isn’t the only environmental reason to consider replacing your organisation’s paper-based processes. Oftentimes, the launch of digital transformation projects provide several eco benefits at once – such as the £26,000 worth of food waste saved per year at University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust with its patient meal ordering app.

2.              Digital-first & self-service

Since the initial outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NHS has accelerated adoption of a “digital-first” approach – including the introduction online self-service for a number of patient and employee services. While implemented initially to support social distancing and reduction of infection, these initiatives also had an outstanding impact on emissions.

Between June 2020 and 2021, the NHS was able to save approximately 386 tonnes of carbon dioxide with use of its NHS App appointment management and online consultations. However, Trusts across the UK have also been implementing their own digital-first projects to enhance patient experience locally, as well as at national scale.

Not only does a digital-first approach ensure a streamlined services and accurate data capture, but it often prevents the need to travel to and from appointments for both patients and healthcare workers. From eConsent forms for immunisations accessible from home, to digital PROMs assessments with eForms, the NDL Community continues to deliver significant environmental benefits with a digital-first approach.

3.              Eliminated rekeying

Another way digitisation can significantly reduce travel emissions is through the elimination of data rekeying practices. Particularly in paper-based processes, the act of rekeying captured information into one or several systems is a common occurrence within the NHS. Be that the manual updating of patient notes across multiple systems, or simply the reconciliation of patient meal order forms – rekeying is a laborious task that often creates significant administrative overheads.

However, rekeying isn’t just an unnecessary use of resources – it’s a contributing factor to mileage emissions. Particularly when delivering community services, healthcare workers often have to travel back to base to rekey notes between visits or appointments. Depending on case load and service area, this can begin to contribute to The NHS Carbon Footprint.

The utilisation of RPA, mobile applications and eForms is often the fastest and most effective tools for rekeying elimination – allowing data to be captured and recalled directly from integrated back-office systems.

4.              Cloud hosting

An additional way in which digitisation can further reduce The NHS Carbon Footprint is through a sustainable approach to data hosting. In particular, moving from private data centres to cloud hosting can lead to significant reductions in carbon emissions. According to NHS Digital, the UK’s national health service has saved 4,000 tonnes of carbon with cloud hosting alone.

However, the environmental benefits of cloud hosting aren’t the only attractive strengths relevant to the NHS – improvements in agility, security and scalability have all led to the launch of the NHS’s Cloud Centre of Excellence (CCoE). Aiming to boost the national health service’s adoption of cloud hosting arrangements, the NHS formed its own service specifically dedicated to “increasing the likelihood of adopting new ways of working to realise value and allow teams to become self-sufficient.”

5.              Virtual appointments

Another practice made popular throughout COVID-19 was virtual appointments. Found to be an extremely useful method in maintaining healthcare throughout lockdown periods, virtual appointments were instrumental in controlling the spread of the virus – however, that wasn’t the only benefit observed in their implementation. Between June 2020 and June 2021, the NHS estimated it was able to save the carbon equivalent of 40,000 cars on the road with virtual appointments.

Contributing the aforementioned digital-first approach, virtual appointments have allowed healthcare providers to remain flexible and responsive with patients who were unable to – or prefer not to – attend in-person. In turn, this has not only improved patient choice and experience, but has also drastically reduced emissions by both service users and healthcare professionals. For this reason, many Trusts have announced their intentions of continuing these virtual services – placing more emphasis on their abilities to support them.

With the introduction of virtual appointments, a need for end-to-end digitisation in related processes (such as booking, record updates and even communications) is also clear. With many organisations choosing to implement eForm and mobile application data capture, the environmental impact of virtual appointments is further amplified by the avoidance of paper wastage and travel-based carbon emissions.

Achieving Net Zero NHS with the help of digitisation

Is your Trust committed to achieving Net Zero NHS by 2040? Don’t hesitate to contact a member of our team to learn more about the impacts of RPA, mobile application and eForm digitisation could have on your organisation’s carbon emissions.