Last week (16th August), members of the Sussex Innovation team attended the Future of Healthcare Hackathon at the LSBU Croydon Campus. The day featured an expert panel discussion, followed by a mini hackathon that sought to tackle three challenges:

  • Designing new systems of collaboration that build successful digital health communities
  • Constructing new uses of technology to reduce carbon emissions in healthcare
  • Building new strategies to attract and retain the workforce of the future

Those challenges raise an interesting question – what should we do when our social or sustainability ambitions come into conflict with each other? It’s tempting to think about each of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals as its own unique challenge, discrete from all the other goals. But in reality, everything that an organisation does in an effort to reach an ESG target will have impacts elsewhere. True sustainability requires a holistic mindset.

For example, when we try to measure the social impact of a healthcare business, it would be a completely natural instinct to look at reduction in cases of a specific disease it targets, or health outcomes among the population it cares for. Going a step further, one might consider ideas such as measuring healthy lifestyles, how well-informed the population are, and whether there is equality and equity in healthcare provision.

Whilst these are critical measures of success, we don’t want to fall into the trap of designing exclusively for outcomes tied directly to health. When we do so, we risk creating new problems in the process of solving old ones.

Reducing carbon emissions in healthcare

Carbon footprint is a case in point – we don’t often consider the environmental impact of healthcare, because health and wellbeing are so obviously a social good, in and of themselves. Think of the additional production, transport and waste materials that were created during the Covid-19 pandemic, as health systems around the world scrambled to make enough PPE, testing and vaccine kits to meet demand, and get them delivered to where they were needed. The environmental toll felt like a necessary evil in the face of that urgent situation – but whenever we have time to reflect on how our healthcare systems function, we should take the opportunity to devise ways of making them more efficient and less damaging.

Data storage is currently responsible for a huge proportion of the healthcare system’s carbon emissions. This is a complex problem to address, because good data is an essential tool in helping us to spot the patterns that helps us to identify symptoms earlier, highlight risk factors in patients and propose the most effective treatment pathways, among many other benefits. Electronic Health Records (EHRs) have become the standard for storing health data in recent decades, increasing the range of information available to physicians about their patients.

But just as in other data-intensive industries, the ability to access this vast amount of information uses a lot of energy. When combined with the rapid growth in data-driven AI to spot patterns healthcare records, more and more CO2 is being emitted to power the necessary data storage and processing. Although the data industry is gradually moving towards renewable power, data centres are still responsible for more than 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions – and nearly a third of that is being generated by the healthcare industry.

Healthcare providers are thought to generate roughly 137 terabytes of data every day, with the average hospital producing twice as much data each year as is housed in the entire US Library of Congress. Clearly, much of this data is valuable, and it’s also very hard to predict which data will have utility later on. That’s why our focus needs to be on a more efficient approach to data collection and sharing across the industry.

Duplicated tests and records not only place an unnecessary expense and administrative burden on organisations like the NHS – they create demand for vast amounts of additional storage as well. Designing consistent ways to classify, structure and communicate data across the industry is a first step towards a more joined-up approach that reduces waste, saves money and results in a healthier population.