Digital transformation and sustainability: boosting efficiencies, protecting the environment
UK Health & Social Care Lead
Virgin Media O2 Business
22nd November 2022
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All industries have undergone digital transformation in recent years in one form or another.
But few industries face the same challenges as the health sector does in applying new tech at such scale, under such budgetary constraints, and in integrating it into such long-standing physical infrastructure.
And yet attention is firmly set on sustainability within the NHS, local government, and stakeholder groups — as we heard in a recent roundtable discussion, convened by Virgin Media O2 Business in association with National Health Executive.
It has been well documented, the Covid-19 pandemic posed fundamental challenges to every aspect of our health services, not just the front lines and in primary care. However, it has identified many opportunities to explore new practices in the health sector, many of which are underpinned by digital. These can also help drive healthcare towards a more sustainable future.
In the roundtable, in which I took part, we put our heads together to explore what best practice looks like, how we can all work together to get there, and the key roadblocks we need to overcome in the coming years.
The wider, positive impacts of the pandemic
So, how did Covid-19 change the face of sustainability in the health sector?
Initially forcing clinicians to see patients remotely, where possible demonstrated the safety and feasibility of rolling this practice out much more widely.
“We don’t promote enough the ways we can reduce travel and move away from [in-person treatment],” one panellist remarked.
By establishing trust in remote consultations, in situations where it is safe and meets the needs of the patients, NHS trusts can reduce the environmental costs of travelling — both for clinicians and patients in one fell swoop.
On the other side of the coin, Covid-19 threw into stark relief some of the inefficiencies that were endemic to the sector – usually for reasons relating to the age of the physical infrastructure.
The nature of the UK’s hospital and healthcare sector means that, for many NHS trusts and networks, the age of estates provides a significant challenge to sustainability efforts.
One contributor to the discussion explained that – during the pandemic when buildings were empty – staff had to walk around “turning on every single tap in the building for five minutes, twice a day… if you don't do that you get Legionella build-up and I don't want to turn our hospital into an acute health hospital through a Legionella outbreak.”
Many on the panel concurred that estates constructed in the 20th century have common features that limit efforts to reduce energy consumption and unnecessary waste. There’s definitely opportunity to explore smart builds to support energy saving (which supports cost optimisation too!)
Digital solutions are already changing the decades-old methods of work and delivering significant efficiency savings.
For example, one participant offered the experience in their workplace – saying that they now avoid their chronic challenges to do with over-ordering stock, thanks to radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags.
“Digital offers a fantastic opportunity to make sure that we are protecting the environment by not ordering excess stock, or just letting it go to waste,” they said.
Cutting e-Waste in the NHS
Like many fields – especially those within the public sector – attention is now increasingly turning to the sustainability footprint of tech itself, also known as “e-waste”.
“I think there's much more to be done from a supplier perspective and from an NHS perspective to be more efficient with our e-waste, particularly laptops and phones are big issues,” one person said.
“I know there's probably drawers full of old phones that just aren’t any use any more. All of that is very much in our gift to take that and put it into the right environment for that to be recycled and reused. That’s going to have a big impact on our e-waste and emissions.”
Another panellist shared their approach: “These devices are put back into the community, so that's the circular economy of not only taking the products back in to recycle and improve emissions.
“But they're also actually cleaned and put back to great use in the community to support the education and training of the people that we're meeting every day.”
The speaker emphasised the importance of the “visibility of circular economies,” in order to demonstrate leadership on an under-appreciated element of sustainability practice, especially across large organisations.
All panellists agreed on the importance of NHS Trusts joining forces to reduce their collective carbon footprint through “greater collaborative supply, IT and procurement”.
The importance of visibility
A prime example of the importance of visibility in ‘tech for good’ initiatives is Virgin Media O2’s work with the Good Things Foundation as its first strategic partner.
VMO2 has worked closely with the charity to fix the digital divide, helping people to access free connectivity, devices, and basic digital skills training.
It followed VMO2’s and Good Things Foundation’s pioneering National Databank initiative, which launched in July of last year. Similar to a foodbank – but for free mobile data, texts, and calls.
Leadership and championing digital initiatives
A significant portion of the discussion focused on digital leadership – not only what it means in the context of the healthcare sector, but also what best practice looks like for pioneers of digital transformation.
One speaker made explicit reference to the Digital Champions Network – specifically, in helping to bridge skills and access gaps across generations and gaining buy-in for tech-enabled shifts.
There can be resistance to the adoption of tech solutions, particularly when they are perceived as achieving administrative goals at the expense of patients’ needs.
“Tech isn’t always the solution to patient needs, or even sustainability,” one person said.
“Sometimes tech helps with Net Zero aims – but the patient or consultant needs aren’t met.”
One solution offered by the group was to employ ‘Digital Champion Networks’ – with the specific aim of winning buy in for technological transformation.
“It’s about using and building Digital Champion Networks because you can recruit digital champions from different generations,” one panellist said.
“It's also about upskilling and investing in digital champions, and bringing them together so that they can share information between themselves… what they've done and what challenges they've had.”
Another participant added: “People have said when will the day come when we drop the word ‘Digital’ and we just talk about leadership. That is the big question.
“There are loads of stuff going on in the world of leadership, but we’re trying to mirror that with digital leadership, and it's just about making those two worlds come together.”
The great challenge for digital and sustainability leaders in the health sector is “keeping up the momentum” after the initial burst of innovation triggered by Covid.
As a panel, we heard a number of thought-provoking strategies for achieving our green goals for the coming years.
But the key takeaways related to the way NHS Trusts and other stakeholder groups could work together to find best practice going forward. Often that comes from taking inspiration from unlikely sources, sometimes with little or nothing to do with the health sector – particularly on new post-Covid-19 working practices.
By putting these into practice, while keeping patient needs at the heart of everything the health sector does, is the clearest path to a greener future in the NHS.
With thanks to our roundtable attendees:
- Francis Andrews, Medical Director, Bolton NHS Foundation Trust
- Paula Baird, Programme Lead for Digitally Enabled Workforce, NHS Education for Scotland
- Delphine Fitouri, Head of Digital Services, Bradford District Care NHS Foundation Trust
- Joel Glover, Director of Commercial Development, Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust
- Rhiannon Lawson, Director of Digital, Tony Blair Institute
Alan Milbourne, Policy Lead for Digital Skills and Leadership, Scottish Government
- Martin McFadyen, Head of Public Sector, Virgin Media O2 Business
- Jack Howe, Conference and Events Executive, National Health Executive
- Louis Morris, Lead Journalist, National Health Executive