Digital health initiatives spearheading sustainable healthcare and climate action

3 minute read

Barack Obama's words echo louder than ever, ‘We are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it.’

The healthcare industry, ranking as the 5th largest contributor to planetary pollution according to the Lancet Countdown, faces a dire need for sustainable transformation. Climate change not only exacerbates health challenges but also creates a detrimental cycle counterproductive to our goals for a sustainable future in healthcare.

In the corridors of Saïd Business School, where discussions delve deep into the systems driving climate change and healthcare, it's evident that a significant overlap exists between the challenges we face in achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in both healthcare and climate action.

In the MSc in Global Healthcare Leadership class of 2022, compelling evidence supports the pivotal role of Digital Health Initiatives (DHIs) in addressing these intertwined challenges. Technologies such as telehealth, artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), and electronic medical/health records (EMR/EHR) showcase tangible impacts in reducing carbon footprints by minimising travel, streamlining documentation, and optimising interactions.

For instance, studies like Bartlett et al. (2022) highlight how virtual consultations significantly slash carbon emissions compared to traditional face-to-face visits. The hour-long virtual consultation emits just a fraction of the CO2 compared to its in-person counterpart, indicating a substantial environmental benefit. Moreover, the adoption of EMR/EHR systems not only reduces paper waste but also sets the stage for advanced solutions like predictive analytics and machine learning, promising better patient outcomes with lower environmental costs.

The landscape of healthcare delivery has evolved dramatically, especially in the wake of Covid-19, giving rise to three key interventions:

1. Optimising patient journeys for sustainable outcomes

The surge in telehealth and video consultations during and post-covid era signifies a fundamental shift in patient-provider interactions. However, challenges like patient engagement and long-term compliance persist, demanding innovative solutions to enhance virtual care effectiveness.

Similarly, while EMR/EHR adoption holds promise in reducing paper usage, variations in implementation globally pose hurdles to seamless interoperability and comprehensive data analytics, essential for driving meaningful insights and personalised interventions.

Companies leveraging data-backed patient engagement strategies have witnessed remarkable improvements in outcomes while significantly reducing the need for physical travel, thereby making substantial environmental strides.

2. Empowering patients for sustainable health

Decision-support tools and wearables empower patients to take control of their health, reducing the burden on healthcare systems and the associated carbon footprint. Remote monitoring and wearable devices offer real-time insights, enabling early intervention and minimising hospitalisation risks.

3. Optimising pharma-physician engagement

The advent of tools like e-detailing and virtual reps revolutionises engagement models, minimising the carbon footprint associated with traditional sales calls. Virtual sales force models offer a compelling alternative, significantly reducing travel needs and emissions without compromising effectiveness.

As we navigate towards a sustainable future, it's imperative to not only evaluate the direct impact of DHIs on healthcare and climate but also account for the sustainability implications of tech infrastructure development. While methodologies like Life-cycle assessment (LCA) and Environmentally Extended Input-Output Analysis (EEIOA) provide valuable insights, standardised frameworks for measuring the net impact of health-tech on climate remain nascent.

As regulatory pressures mount, the healthcare industry must embrace green accounting algorithms to demonstrate the dual impact of technology on healthcare outcomes and climate action. Digital Health Initiatives stand as beacons of hope, offering a pathway to a future where healthcare not only heals but also nurtures our planet for generations to come.

Oxford MSc in Global Healthcare Leadership