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Innovations in Sustainable Healthcare

University of Sussex

3 min read Partner content

The University of Sussex is helping the NHS achieve its goal of becoming the world's first net-zero health service.

Medical researchers from the University of Sussex have stepped out of the lab and into the very real world of health policy – pursuing innovative ways to decarbonise the health service, which is currently responsible for around 5% of carbon emissions in the UK.

In 2020, the NHS became the first health service in the world to commit to reaching net zero, in response to the profound threat to health posed by climate change. This commitment is now embedded in the Health and Care Act 2022. Helping to make the target a reality, the Sustainable Healthcare Group at the Brighton and Sussex Medical School (BSMS) has been exploring ways to reduce the environmental impact of medical products.

The three billion items of personal protective equipment (PPE) used over the first six months of the Covid-19 pandemic generated more than 100,000 tonnes of CO2 – the equivalent of flying from London to New York and back 244 times each day. BSMS researchers found that this carbon footprint could be cut by 75% – through reusable items, UK manufacture, recycling, and rationalising glove use – while still keeping staff and patients safe.

The researchers also found that around two-thirds of the carbon footprint of common surgical operations related to single-use products, many of which were plastics. “If we switch from single-use to reusable items, and employ better decontamination, waste segregation and recycling processes, we could reduce these products’ carbon footprint by one-third,” explains the project’s lead researcher, Dr Chantelle Rizan, Clinical Lecturer in Sustainable Healthcare at BSMS. “This figure could be even higher if industry rises to the challenge of sustainable surgical product innovation.”

Informing policy and practice

“Our research is building a strong evidence base for improving the sustainability of medical products,” says Dr Rizan. “We now have to translate this knowledge into policy and practice.”

The newly launched open-access HealthcareLCA database, developed by BSMS in partnership with Dalhousie University and CASCADEs in Canada, is a step towards this end. It collates published environmental impact values for 1,400 healthcare products and activities.

Dr Rizan is now working with the Greener NHS programme and stakeholders from industry, the NHS, NICE and BSI to evaluate how best to embed environmental impact into regulations, guidelines, commissioning, and procurement. “We need a robust and consistent approach to evaluating the environmental impact of healthcare products, and to integrate this into end-to-end processes,” she explains. “Employing circular economy principles can facilitate safe, cost- effective and sustainable product innovation and selection.”

This pioneering research from Sussex will not only help the NHS on its journey to net zero, but also acts as a springboard for innovation in other sectors, such as the pharmaceutical industry, as well as providing a blueprint for health systems around the world.

Policy@Sussex

Dr Rizan’s work is supported by a fellowship from Policy@Sussex – the University of Sussex policy engagement unit, which works to connect academic researchers with policymakers. Please visit www.sussex.ac.uk/research/about/policy-at-sussex or contact policyteam@sussex.ac.uk to find out how our research evidence and insights can support your decision-making and provide solutions to the most complex policy challenges.

BSMS is a partnership between the Universities of Sussex and Brighton.

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