Sustainability in the care sector
Sustainability can be defined as, “Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” Often, the term triple bottom line is referred to which encompasses social, economic, and environmental factors.
Our social care system is directly impacted by social, economic, and environmental challenges facing our world, including climate change, an ageing population, health inequalities, and mental health issues. In the care sector, sustainability is more than just ensuring a financially viable model. A report conducted by The King’s Fund in 2012 discussed the need to focus on more than just a financially sustainable health care model, with environmental and social factors to be given consideration. David Pencheon, Director, NHS Sustainable Development Unit (Pencheon 2011) also stated, “Sustainability means more than merely lasting or surviving; it means designing and delivering health care that uses resources in ways that don’t prejudice future health and wellbeing”. The most sustainable care model will, “Deliver the right care, in the right place, at the right time”. However, the most effective way to make the healthcare sector more sustainable, is to minimise the need for health care and focus on preventive measures.
In 2012, the ‘Sustainable health and social care: connecting environmental and financial performance’ report conducted by The King’s Fund highlighted that more needed to be done to make the healthcare system more environmentally and economically sustainable. Changes just at an operational level were deemed not enough, and instead a holistic approach to the system was recommended, including the need for a transformational model, a focus on prevention, and the integration and coordination of care. A report by PWC supported this approach, with a consumer-centred approach needed to focus on the wellness, prevention, and management of health.
The NHS recently shared their ‘Delivering a net zero national health service’ report, detailing the approach needed to reduce the health services’ carbon footprint for a sustainable healthcare system. They predicted they can cut direct emissions to net zero by 2040 with an approach consisting of seven key stages. These include using new models of care to reduce the carbon footprint, examining the supply chain, making changes to transport and travel, using innovative technology, building net zero hospitals, implementing LED light replacements, and focussing on adaptation and resilience.
So, what can be done further down the chain? Future proofing the design and buildability of a care residence can contribute towards how environmentally sustainable it is. Furthermore, the look, feel, and layout of a building has a direct impact on the resident’s experience and wellbeing, contributing to their overall health. Using materials with low volatile organic compounds will reduce the environmental impact of the build, but also reduce the number of harmful products released into the air which may indirectly impact resident’s health. The use of plants or even air filters can help to reduce poor air quality in some facilities, potentially reducing costs and dramatically improving the welfare of staff and residents.
MDPI released a paper in 2020 which discussed the correlation between efficient floor plans and a reduction in heating and energy costs in care homes. The report highlighted that efficient use of space can contribute to less energy being required to heat and power the area. Subsequently this also means less time will be spent travelling around buildings to treat patients, requiring less energy.
But building and reconfiguring care homes is not always a possibility in the quest to reduce our carbon footprint. Studies also highlight the do-it-yourself methods of healthcare which are becoming increasingly more popular, with postal testing services, healthcare appointments via mobiles, and the use of technology to support the workforce. These techniques not only empower consumers, but they also contribute to the reduction of environmental and economic impacts while focussing on the user experience.
Sustainability options for care homes can often centre around implementing green technologies such as electricity generating solar roofs, biomass systems for heating, optimising the insulation of buildings, and using efficient boiler systems to reduce costs. Internally, care homes can use motion sensors to reduce the amount of time lights are on, harness smart technologies to use devices more efficiently, and audit their practices to see what can be reduced and where efficiencies can be made.
Installing software to automatically shut down computers at University College London Hospitals is an example of one initiative to cut costs, and it was predicted to save on average £100,000 a year. Even sourcing food locally has helped to cut their carbon footprint and is an idea which can be adopted by many care providers.
Care providers can also look at the procurement and waste disposal of their medical equipment to see what costs savings can be made. Likewise, reducing “care miles” can also help to reduce the overall carbon footprint of the providers and moreover, the health care sector as a whole.
In addition to the above, there is now greater emphasis on emerging and innovative technology to support how care homes operate and care for their residents. In the South East Health Technologies Alliance’s (SEHTRA) ‘Technology and innovation in care homes’ report, a range of technologies with the potential to improve efficiency have been showcased. These include fall prevention software, systems to support medication management, early infection detection, electronic reporting of food and drink intake for patients, and electronic tools to empower residents and patients. The report also highlighted that up to 80% of care homes still kept paper records, demonstrating that there is a long way to go in making the sector more sustainable. The report concluded that the main barrier for care homes implementing these technologies were the initial costs, and for them to be implemented a cost-benefit analysis must demonstrate an overall efficiency gain to justify implementing and upskilling the workforce to use them.
In a report by Home Care Insight, Alyson Scurfield, CEO of TSA said, “Technology is vital to the future sustainability of care. For people to be more confident and less reliant on adult social care and health services, we need to empower them through digital solutions.”
The health care sector is an energy intensive sector and demand is required around the clock. The way to reduce the carbon footprint is to reduce the amount of energy required through sustainable practices positively impacting the triple line.
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