NHS Digital publishes sustainability report and future direction

In December 2021, NHS Digital released its Sustainability Annual Report for the period 2020 – 2021, ahead of the publication of a five-year strategy exploring processes and frameworks and possible new ways of working.

The publication highlights the impact of technologies such as MS Teams and communication tools as part of the COVID-19 vaccinations programme, notes a focus on sustainability as part of future procurement processes, and details the organisation’s own carbon footprint. 

On NHS Digital’s own footprint, the document states a reduction in the organisation’s office footprint and reductions to its estate. However, it also acknowledges a carbon footprint shift from offices to employees’ homes.

Further in the report, it progresses to focus on how to drive social value in the future, specifically on the commercial lifecycle and procurement activities. This has led to NHS Digital updating its commercial strategy, policies, and procedures – with an aim to ensure social value. It now incorporates the revised Cabinet Office requirements (Procurement Policy Note (PPN) 06/20), which mandates “a minimum weighting of 10 per cent of the total score for social value (for relevant) procurements.”

Technical architecture is the next area of focus in the report, where five ‘sustainable architecture principles’ are outlined, including to: minimise data retention and resolution; code efficiently; limit architectural obsolescence; provide access that minimises end user device numbers – in favour of promoting access to our services via low energy devices, such as tablet and mobile; and to carefully consider the benefits of utilising artificial intelligence or machine learning – to ensure benefit outweighs energy requirements.

Focusing on the organisation’s own footprint, during the 2020-2021 period, the report notes a reduction in water, travel and electricity use. However, it also found an increase in gas due to heating offices for a lower number of employees in its building. The report then summarises: “Once commuter emissions and incremental increases of domestic energy have been factored in, our overall carbon reduction does not appear as substantial.”

Included in the report is a series of case studies, the first focusing on the NHS Digital Call/Recall COVID-19 Vaccinations Programme. The element in focus, in relation to sustainability, focuses on communications to invite and remind patients to book their COVID-19 vaccination. NHS Digital highlighted that, by sending text messages, the cost was 25 per cent lower than sending letters – an estimated 173.3 tonnes of CO2e reduction.

In addition, the report notes: “The programme identified that by the time letters had arrived at a peoples’ addresses, the largest spikes in vaccination booking rates had already occurred, in part due to media announcements. Letters still played an important role for the 15 to 20 per cent of each cohort that the service does not have a valid mobile phone number for.”

The next case study focused on the use of MS Teams, specifically at Rotherham NHS Foundation Trust. The trust delivered voice therapy using Teams, where patients were surveyed after their virtual voice therapy appointment, and 100 per cent felt they received the same quality of therapy as a face-to-face appointment. The average saving to a patient for a six-session block of therapy travelling in a petrol-powered car is 13kg of CO2 emissions.

To read the report in full, please click here.