How can the pharma industry help build a greener NHS?

Views & Analysis

NHS England has set its sights on becoming the world’s first net zero health system by 2045 – so what is industry doing to help achieve this goal, and what more needs to be done? 

Sustainable healthcare systems can help create a healthier world and improve outcomes, meaning it is everyone’s responsibility to make it happen.

Pharma has made huge strides in helping NHS England achieve its net zero by 2045 target, but there is still much more work to be done, said the members of a panel discussion, held during the NHS Confederation Conference and facilitated by the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI).

Exploring next steps, they talked about the value of sharing knowledge and how the “COVID effect” could accelerate progress.

Creating a healthier world

There is a huge crossover between the purpose of the health service and that of the green agenda, NHS England’s chief sustainability officer Dr Nick Watts told session moderator, Channel 4 News’ Victoria Donald.

“We exist to provide high-quality care for all, now and for future generations…if we let climate change go unmitigated… delivering that care is going to be very, very difficult in the future,” he said, adding that the interventions needed to create a greener NHS would also create a healthier society.

“A lot of what you do to respond to climate change is good for diet, good for physical activity, good for air quality, and good for running a common sense, efficient healthcare system. That is what the greener NHS programme is all about.”

Pinder Sahota, general manager at Novo Nordisk in the UK and vice president of the ABPI, said many of the association’s member organisations had already committed to significantly reducing their carbon footprint.

“We do not work in a bubble: we are part of society. We listen to politicians, the general public, the media. We listen to our families, and what our kids are saying. Organisations like ours and others have listened very carefully, and chosen to do something about it,” he said.

Top down and bottom up

The pressure to make a change was on all sides, added Anna Murphy, consultant respiratory pharmacist at University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust.

“There is a lot more awareness around the environment and how important it is to think about our carbon footprint. Patients are beginning to ask more about choices: could I have something more environmentally friendly or how do I dispose of it?” she said.

Explaining that even changes at trust level could make a big difference, Murphy said she was working with fellow panellist, managing director of Chiesi Limited, Tom Delahoyde, on a pilot inhaler recycling scheme.

Delahoyde, whose company is also working on a low carbon inhaler, noted that 77% of patients surveyed said they would use the programme if it was available.

“Patients want to play their part,” he said, adding that used inhalers often ended up in landfill. “It’s about giving patients what they want while also working with the NHS on sustainability.”

“Now that we've got initiatives underway, we can come together and learn. How do we collaborate with the NHS to progress not only our individual company initiatives, but also support the NHS agenda?” 

Knowledge pool

Delahoyde also spoke about the importance of transparency across the industry. “Words are easy. It is important that we open ourselves up for scrutiny. It's almost trendy to talk about sustainability and every company wants its sustainability tick,” he said, explaining that all of Chiesi’s targets were validated and approved by the Science Based Targets initiative.

All three panellists agreed that collaboration, rather than competition, was the best way to achieve net zero.

“Many pharmaceutical companies have great initiatives in play to tackle this problem,” Sahota said, adding that the ABPI had an important role to play in helping the sector bring these individual programmes together.

“Now that we've got initiatives underway, we can come together and learn,” he said.

“Can we look at our supply chains and learn from one another? And how do we collaborate with the NHS to progress not only our individual company initiatives, but also support the NHS agenda?”

He used the example of Novo Nordisk’s project to reduce waste from its production sites.

“When we first looked at taking waste out of our manufacturing plant, and converting it to biogas, it didn't happen straight away. We had to learn how to do it. I think it would be useful for other organisations to learn how can they jump to that solution quicker,” he said.

“It's about trying things and improving processes, but then there should be a conversation that enables others to build on that knowledge.”

COVID effect

Creating a sustainable health service is a mammoth task – but the sector’s response to COVID-19 has demonstrated just how much the sector can achieve.

“It has been a very difficult 12 months,” said Murphy, “but we have had to work smarter, differently, more efficiently, and with perhaps colleagues who normally would have been behind a barrier… Some of the bureaucracy has been reduced.

“We've got this opportunity now to build on what we've learned.”

Sahota agreed, pointing to the success of the vaccination programme as proof of what can be achieved when the sector unites behind a common purpose.

“The collaboration that's taken place, with multiple partners from the NHS, industry, and diagnostics companies, shows that when you have a great singular goal, when everyone is behind and you collaborating, you could achieve great things.

“If we could bring that mentality and momentum to sustainability, I think we can smash our targets.”

About the author

Amanda Barrell is a freelance health and medical education journalist, editor and copywriter. She has worked on projects for pharma, charities and agencies, and has written extensively for patients, healthcare professionals and the general public.