A new study by academics in the Westcountry into ways to cut the carbon footprint of hospitals could help the UK slash its carbon (CO2) emissions by getting the NHS to work smarter in order to meet environmental targets.
The research, carried out by the European Centre for Environment and Human Health – part of the University of Exeter Medical School – has led to the development of a complex modelling tool that could help healthcare providers to optimise their operations, thereby reducing pollution and cutting costs.
The NHS is a major contributor of so-called greenhouse gases and was responsible for 30% of all public sector carbon emissions and 3% of all CO2 emissions in England in 2010. It has pledged to reduce its emissions by 80% by 2050, with an interim target of 20% by 2020.
The mathematical model developed by researchers aims to help those planning healthcare services to hit these tough targets by assessing the impact of a number of different healthcare scenarios on both carbon and cost.
By considering the use of resources such as outpatient clinics, theatre lists, beds and diagnostic facilities, the tool allows planners to optimise the location of their services and ensure that current facilities are being used to their maximum potential.
Lead author of the research and developer of the software, Dr Adam Pollard said: "We want this tool to help healthcare managers and administrators achieve a balance between economic viability, patient outcomes and climate change mitigation, ideally realising a win-win scenario where cost savings and carbon reduction coincide."
Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases contribute to global warming and ocean acidification. Under the Kyoto protocol the Government committed to reducing levels by 12.5% below 1990 levels by 2012. The Climate Change Act 2008 sets out a reduction of at least 34% in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and at least 80% by 2050, against the 1990 baseline.
To help meet these, the new model considers so-called direct emissions, produced from sources that are owned or controlled by the health trust and indirect emissions, from electricity and patient transport. In future it is hoped embodied emissions, such as those from medicines, equipment and waste will figure.
The model has already been tested using data from the Royal Cornwall Hospital Trust, demonstrating how potential measures to achieve carbon savings must be balanced with possible consequences.
Dr Paul Upton, medical director at the RCHT at Treliske, said the model provided "vital data to feed into future planning".
"Recent new developments are built to minimise their impact on the environment," he added. "We have installed a number of energy-saving schemes including solar power and biomass heat generation.
"Beyond that, there is a great deal we can do to get the best out of existing facilities and providing more services in community locations will help to reduce carbon emissions in a number of ways."