Developing sustainable digital healthcare in the UK

The challenges of sustainable healthcare have never been as pressing as they are today, in a world forever altered by Covid-19 and struggling with the yet-emerging effects of climate change. Carbon emissions from travel, the need for social distancing, and the complex relationship between digital technology and GHG are all combining to present healthcare providers with unprecedented difficulties in service provision. Around the world, health services, analysts and businesses are rising to meet the situation head-on, and they’re already finding innovative green solutions that offer impressive results.

In a report published by TMT management consultancy Analysys Mason last year titled Green 5G: Building a Sustainable World, several largescale Chinese projects utilising 5G networks to reduce carbon emissions were outlined, including one focused on 5G-enabled remote computed tomography (CT) medical consultation in less affluent areas of the country, which eliminates the need for specialised medical staff to travel to remote areas to diagnose patients. According to the report: ‘The elimination of road and air travel (the main source of GHG emissions in this case study) led to a massive 99% reduction in GHG emissions associated with these expert consultation sessions.’

Driving change through research and development

This incredible level of success has been noticed by the international community, and in the UK the NHS has been trialling several similar schemes over the past few years.

In Liverpool, a government grant of £3.5 million was awarded to the Sensor City global innovation hub to investigate the opportunities of 5G community wi-fi in health and social care, as part of a wider scheme to roll out 5G adoption across the Home Nations. Professor Joe Spencer of the University of Liverpool said: “A successful demonstration of a 5G testbed in health and social care will see the development of new, innovative and disruptive technologies that will help to bridge the digital divide in the UK, especially in deprived communities.”

In the Midlands and Lancashire, the West Mercia 5G Project is holding information sessions with potential technology and industry partners to design, deliver, test, and evaluate innovative 5G-enabled ‘digital health and assistive technology’ use cases in rural areas.

At the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, Chief Executive at University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust Dr David Rosser led the UK’s first remote diagnostic procedure from a 5G connected ambulance, linking augmented reality, robotic healthcare technology and clinical expertise in real time.

In the Life Sciences Accelerator building in Liverpool, a collaborative commercial health research facility run by the Royal Liverpool and Broadgreen University Hospital Trust (RLBUHT) and Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM), two specialised ‘smart rooms’ have been constructed to test potential 5G healthcare innovations in environments that replicate a hospital room and a patient’s home respectively.

“This collaborative work is helping to future proof our local health services and shape how we can deliver world class healthcare in our hospital and in our community,” explained David Walliker, chief information officer at the Royal Liverpool and Broadgreen University Hospitals NHS Trust.
Building a digital healthcare consensus

All these schemes represent positive momentum for sustainable digital healthcare in the UK, but there remains a substantial distance between such pilot programmes and the rapid progress of similar healthcare services internationally.

However, things are changing. As the Green 5G report notes, roughly 307 million NHS patient consultations take place across GP surgeries every year, a number with an inevitably significant associated carbon footprint. Legacy IT issues across the service had made the rapid adoption of telemedicine provisions difficult in the past, but the arrival of the March 2020 national lockdown to combat Covid-19 led to the fast-tracking of primary and secondary services in every NHS Trust. Since that time, the report notes, ‘It is estimated that there have been around 25.5 million virtual consultations per month. There has also been a significant rise in the use of NHS Digital functionality, from 65.4 million to 115 million transactions per month, including a huge increase in registrations to use the NHS App, from 200,000 to 22.2 million.’

The widespread public adoption of the NHS App, along with the rapid rollout of Microsoft Teams by NHS staff, suggests that a massive amount of NHS patients and staff are not just willing, but keen to shift to a broader adoption of digital healthcare infrastructure.

The shape of things to come

Almost everyone involved in, or involved in analysing, the digital infrastructure industries share the view that there are more big changes on the way, and that healthcare will inevitably be the frontline to which many of these changes will arrive first. As the Green 5G report notes in its conclusion: ‘Among the industries in which 5G – and interlocking technologies like cloud, AI and IoT – are expected to have the greatest impact on energy efficiency are healthcare, manufacturing, transportation and energy.’

As with all times of transition, this presents opportunities and pitfalls. However, as the interim CEO of NHS Digital Simon Bolton noted upon taking his current role: “The appetite for digitisation within the NHS presents a huge opportunity for all of us working in the health tech sector and my ambition is for NHS Digital to be at the forefront… what NHS Digital has achieved during the pandemic has been remarkable and I look forward to working alongside my new colleagues to continue to deliver for patients and the frontline.”
The future is full of potential for service providers who continue to push in the same direction.

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