The role of healthcare in tackling climate change - is the weather about to change?

Much has been written about climate change in the past few months as the great and the good converged on Glasgow in November for the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference. Many commentators more qualified than me have debated whether COP26 was a success or not and whether it delivered what it needed to. But regardless of your thoughts on this, what is clear is that organisations and industries need to be striving towards net zero sooner rather than later with ambitious (albeit achievable) commitments towards this. Understanding the relative drivers to becoming net zero will undoubtedly see providers in a more advantageous place but what are these and how are they “changing the weather” around the climate change debate?

Over the past year, IHPN members have come together to share best practice around net zero strategies, whether that be support and advice over baselining and measuring current carbon footprint, all the way to carbon reduction strategies that really work. This work culminated in the launch of IHPN’s recent voluntary industry-wide net zero commitment which was designed to create an impetus for change – something that was challenging yet achievable for the vast majority of providers, regardless of size and provision.  Following industry-wide engagement, over 40 independent healthcare providers agreed to achieve net zero for scope 1 and 2 emissions by 2035 (both direct and indirect emissions) and for scope 3 (supply chain emissions) by 2045, and for many providers their own organisational commitments are even more ambitious.

This climate change commitment is a pivotal moment for the independent healthcare sector as well as the healthcare sector more widely. IHPN members play a significant role in providing healthcare services in England – delivering care in over 1500 sites and employing over 150,000 people. The latest figures show that in 2020 our acute members delivered almost 700k private patient journeys and almost 2.3m NHS patient journeys, with our community members delivering 266 services commissioned by 91 CCGs and local authorities across England. Independent healthcare providers are therefore a key part of the NHS supply chain, and the climate change commitment further supports the NHS to deliver their own net zero commitment.

But looking more broadly, what are the drivers that are encouraging businesses to embrace net zero? There are all the obvious ones. This is an existential crisis, and it is simply the moral /right thing to do. Climate change is also undoubtedly a business issue – not least with the new procurement requirements from both government and NHS England in relation to sustainability and their supply chains. The healthcare sector cannot ignore the growing evidence of the health impacts of climate change and air pollution. Air pollution is linked to conditions like heart disease, stroke and lung cancer, and academics have linked high pollution days with hundreds of extra out-of-hospital cardiac arrests and hospital admissions for stroke and asthma. The changing climate is leading to more frequent heatwaves and extreme weather events such as flooding, including the potential spread of infectious diseases to the UK. Scientists believe perhaps a third of new asthma cases might be avoided by cutting emissions, while Lyme Disease and encephalitis are among conditions expected to become more common as temperatures rise.

But there are other forces at work, with demand for change also being driven from within. Employees, particularly millennials who make up the majority of the workforce as well as Gen-Zs, are increasingly expecting the organisations that they work for to have net zero commitments in place and to be leading rather than following. Anecdotally we hear that questions around net zero and sustainability are commonly being asked by candidates during interviews and is a factor in successful recruitment and retention. Many more young people, inspired by Greta Thunberg, will be joining the world of work over the coming years so this is a growing and increasingly vocal part of our workforce – which organisations would be foolhardy to ignore.

Recent research commissioned by Unily backs this up. They found that workers don’t just care about climate change on a personal level; they want to feel that their employers are aligned with their values and actively taking part. Almost two thirds of Unily’s survey respondents said that they were more likely to work for a company with strong environmental policies.

And this group of employees are also our patients both now, and as they age and are more likely to need increasing amounts of care, in the future. In the current climate (excuse the pun), it is not hard to imagine a situation where patients are increasing making choices about which healthcare provider they choose based on their wider sustainability and social value.

I think it is clear to see that when we consider climate change action, the “weather” is definitely changing and organisations that embrace challenging net zero commitments will be best placed to deal with the long-term forecast.

Danielle Henry is Head of Primary and Community Care Policy at IHPN