The NHS in England has a carbon footprint that exceeds emissions from all planes departing Heathrow airport, and produces enough sewage to fill Wembley stadium once every 16 days. A growing number of health professionals are exploring actions they can take to reduce the environmental impacts of their activities.
Increasingly, a connection is being made between environmental sustainability and the core objectives of the NHS. A report published by the King's Fund last month examines changes that might be needed to develop an approach to healthcare which is sustainable in terms of its use of financial and natural resources.
Nurses can play an important role in reducing environmental impacts. Some opportunities are obvious; for example, being more energy conscious about heating and lighting can save carbon emissions and money. But sustainable practice goes way beyond turning off light bulbs.
Most of the NHS carbon footprint is accounted for by embedded emissions in the various products used in delivering healthcare. Pharmaceuticals account for 22% of the overall footprint, but large volumes of medicines are wasted or not taken as intended. Improved stock and medicines management could reduce this.
Improving the sustainability of our activities involves re-examining how care is provided. If services are designed so that patients experience an efficient journey through the system and receive well-co-ordinated support for their multiple needs, this should be less wasteful from an environmental and financial perspective.
A sustainable NHS minimises the system's use of natural resources by promoting good health in the population and preventing those who become unwell from needing highly resource-intensive care. There is a big opportunity to promote things which are good for public health and the environment, such as cycling, walking, or reducing meat consumption.
The right approach should also improve public health, efficiency and quality of care.
Chris Naylor, King's Fund fellow and lead author of Sustainable health and social care