Roundtable: What role can digital leaders play in advancing the NHS’s environmental sustainability?

Roundtable: What role can digital leaders play in advancing the NHS’s environmental sustainability?


Mark Burton

Mark Burton

Health Sector Lead

Virgin Media O2 Business


6 minutes

03rd February 2023

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In the past few years there has been a great deal of focus on sustainability in the health sector, such as the NHS’s Delivering a net zero National Health Service report, launched in October 2020, which aims to have the entire NHS reach net zero carbon emissions by 2040.


Considering this, the question must be asked whether CIOs, CCIOs and digital leaders within the health sector are prioritising sustainability within every process and business case, or whether for some, it is falling by the wayside.


And, in addition to looking at the role of digital sustainability within their own services, are these digital leaders taking the appropriate steps to oversee partnerships with suppliers, ensuring that those relationships are supportive of their net zero goals?


To help answer these questions, we partnered with Digital Health, the publication for digital leaders and suppliers within the healthcare space, to discuss how digital leaders can support environmental sustainability within their spheres of influence.


Chaired by Claire Read, Contributing Editor at Digital Health, the discussion brought to the fore three key themes:


  1. Weaving sustainability into existing processes and frameworks
  2. How tech can be used to make the patient journey sustainable
  3. Doing away with legacy systems to help make processes more sustainable

1. Weaving sustainability into existing processes and frameworks

Despite its growing importance, it is the experience of some that in many instances, digital leaders do not always recognise sustainability as a key part of their day-to-day work.


This raised the question of to what extent sustainability is a key issue for CCIO’s, CIOs and digital leaders.


“It’s very much intwined in everything we are doing. We are on a digital journey within the NHS, but the driving force of it is improving our patient and clinical services. But behind that is always the sustainability and environmental factors,” said Kelly Calvert, Digital Programme Clinical Change Lead and Chief Nursing Information Officer, North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust.


Using examples such as virtual wards, online appointments and telephone consultations, Kelly highlighted the improvement of NHS services and the patient experience as a driving force, but also recognised how sustainability is a by-product of these changes.


Ruth Moore, Data Analyst at NHS England, shared a similar thought, highlighting that while patient care is the main driver of these programmes, “what’s important is that we look for synergies between these various service design considerations, whether that’s to improve a specific part of patient care, or whether it’s related to cybersecurity or user centred design or sustainability.”

2. How tech can be used to make the patient journey sustainable

Similarly, one recurring point looked at the importance of the patient journey. As members of the healthcare sector, patients are at the heart of everything the panellists do.


And they agreed that making considerations for digital sustainability in health was important not only for environmental reasons, or for trying to reach net zero goals, but also in so far as it helped to improve the service provided to patients.


Mark Thomas, Chief Digital and Information Officer, NHS Bedfordshire, Luton and Milton Keynes Integrated Care System, said that “The primary thing is enabling someone to start well, live well, age well and die well.”


“Some of the sustainability comes from delivering that differently. [It’s] about taking the services closer to the person as possible that adds benefit for them.”


Using follow ups closer to home and Scotland’s Highlands and Islands service as examples, Mark highlighted how these can be used to “deliver remote services sustainably, and safely.”


Delving into more specific examples of the way tech can be used to improve the patient journey and early interventions, Mark highlighted Virgin Media’s remote stroke monitoring service and the effective thrombolysis of residents.


Our own Martin McFadyen, Head of Public Sector at Virgin Media O2 Business, corroborated this point, speaking on our work with the East of England Ambulance Service. One gentleman, who had suffered a heart attack, was able to get the appropriate care specifically as a result of the connected ambulance, devices and applications that the paramedics had access to.


“We were able to take the gentleman not to standard A&E, but through the intervention and getting the ECGs to the ambulance into the correct cardiologist, they were able to take him to a cardiology unit to get him treated at the earliest opportunity,” Martin recounted.


And while you can highlight the environmental benefits that this kind of digital intervention has on miles travelled, the heart of this story is around the patient and how technological advancements played a role in improving his healthcare journey.

3. Doing away with legacy systems to help make processes more sustainable

While the panel recognised the position of sustainability as a by-product of improved digital services for patients, there was also an understanding of the barriers which the health sector may face which prevents them from reaching their digital sustainability goals.


The answers ranged, from lack of money and time to resources. But the biggest barrier which the panel highlighted? Legacy tech.


Kelly Calvert initially highlighted this point. In addition to costs and complying with NHS regulations, “one of the barriers I tend to find is, sometimes the technology is not always able to deliver what I want to, clinically.” As a result, asking suppliers to expand on an area or provide extra development can be time consuming.


Martin McFadyen agreed, “I think I see, across all the public sector, the single biggest barrier is actually the legacy IT estate.”


But solving this issue is not that easy. “It requires money to replace that legacy. It requires time to be able to plan for that replacement programming project. It requires resources and training to then move on to the new platforms or the new environment.” And this is against a backdrop of people who don’t want to see those changes happen.


This introduces another question into the fold: is environmental benefit given enough credibility in the business case?


Assessing that question and the answers highlights the role that sustainability and the environment play in digital transformation.


Ruth Moore also made this connection, stating that “It’s always going to be weighing different things up. With old legacy IT, there’s a lot of embodied carbon, carbon emissions and energy usage that’s associated with the manufacturer and the end-of-life stage of different pieces of hardware.”


It’s important, Ruth argues, to find the balance. When one considers the energy already used, compared to factors such as cost and cybersecurity, it’s a case of seeing “when is the best time to bring a new device in?”

Making digital and sustainability a symbiotic process

This was an eye-opening discussion which highlighted the various areas where technology and sustainability intersect and how digital leaders in the healthcare sector can implement it as part of their daily operations.


For digital leaders in health and social care, the patient journey is paramount. And implementing developments in tech, from online and telephone appointments to connected devices in hospitals to track the patient journey, first and foremost is about improving the services which they can provide to the public.


However, it is clear, at least among these panellists, that it is no longer enough to leave sustainability to be a by-product or last thought of these developments.


Rather, sustainability should be a key consideration towards any project or business case, intwined with the wider targets and goals of both their own organisation, but also the contracts that they enter into with suppliers.


Only then will digital leaders be able to offer a truly better service overall, which embodies net zero targets while also positioning patient care at the helm.


Thank you to all those who took part in the roundtable:


  • Claire Read, Contributing Editor, Digital Health
  • Martin McFadyen, Head of Public Sector, Virgin Media O2 Business
  • Mark Thomas, Chief Digital and Information Officer, Luton and Milton Keynes Integrated Care System
  • Ruth Moore, Data Analyst, NHS England
  • Kelly Calvert, Digital Programme Clinical Change Lead and Chief Nursing Information Officer, North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust