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NHSX chief information officer outlines role of tech in achieving net zero targets

The digital delivery unit will publish an update of its digital change framework to encompass sustainability, tackling areas such as artificial intelligence and data hosting

A senior leader at NHSX has outlined the digital delivery unit’s vision around how technology can support environmental goals for health and social care.

Sonia Patel, chief information officer (CIO) for the National Health Service (NHS) and care at NHSX, wrote about the role of digital in supporting the health system’s commitment to reaching its net zero carbon emissions targets.

Sustainability is part of NHSX’s What Good Looks Like (WGLL) framework for digital transformation, she said, adding that the health service as a whole is on track to deliver on the net zero promise.

With the strategic foundations laid out, NHSX is starting to receive approaches from providers and intensive care services wanting to know how to advance on that front. Launched in August 2021, the WGLL plan provides a vision for leaders with principles on how to accelerate digital change.

To make further progress on the net zero agenda across the NHS and care system through digital, Patel said the WGLL framework will see an assessment of its smart foundations element.

She said the scope of the assessment, to be published before the end of 2021, will be “much wider than sustainability”. However, it will outline the current state of organisations in terms of sustainable digital service delivery.

The sustainability assessment of WGLL “will cover data storage and hosting, travel and paper reduction, end user devices, and artificial intelligence and automation”, said Patel.

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Moreover, Patel said NHSX commissioned research on the impact of digital on sustainability, focusing on artificial intelligence (AI). The work was published in The journal of climate change and health.

The research looks into AI in healthcare, and presents methodologies for quantifying AI-associated emissions, as well as opportunities for using AI to support NHS emission reduction efforts. Metrics and common approaches to quantify climate impact in the field of AI are presented, and interpreted alongside healthcare AI.

According to Patel, the AI-focused research “demonstrates that considerations need to be made into further quantifying the carbon impact of these technologies”, as NHSX develops its plan for AI in health and care.

“All NHS leaders should be having the conversation about making our healthcare more sustainable, while continuing to deliver outstanding patient care,” she said. “This includes making sustainable choices for digital investment.”

Progress so far

Outlining the progress made around digital technologies in terms of their impact in reducing the carbon footprint in health and care, Patel said making data hosting more efficient at NHS Digital has saved 4,000 tonnes of carbon.

Patel also commented on the impact of virtual appointments in achieving the NHS’s sustainability targets. According to the CIO, the ability to book an appointment remotely has saved the carbon equivalent to taking 40,000 cars off the road for a year, considering the appointments scheduled during the year to June 2021.

When it comes to actual appointments, she noted that 247,000 GP visits were managed and 365,000 online consultations were completed through the NHS App. According to the executive, this equates to a reduction of approximately 386 tonnes of carbon dioxide.

Sending Covid-19 vaccination reminders via SMS rather than letters is estimated to save a carbon equivalent to taking 34 passenger vehicles off the roads for a whole year, the CIO pointed out.

The role of remote monitoring in achieving net zero in healthcare was also highlighted. Patel said that these technologies are expected to reduce patient travel by 28 million miles over the next three years. This, she said, equates to to taking 1,283 cars off the road for a 12-month period.

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