Sustainability Series: Making nursing greener

It is no secret that the environment and healthcare are linked. On the upside, there are huge overlaps between caring for our health and the environment – co-benefits - that offer double wins and natural environment brings substantial health benefits. But climate change poses enormous risks to health and healthcare provision is part of that problem.   Carbon emissions from the NHS in 2015 were 22.8 million tonnes of carbon. This is why the NHS sits within the Climate Change Act (2008) and so must reduce carbon emissions by 30% by 2020 and 80% by 2050.

So how do we make healthcare more sustainable?, Good work has been done on  greening estates management of hospitals including improving waste facilities, energy systems, and transport options. These practices are of vital importance and have already made great headway in reducing carbon emissions. However, the chart below shows that only around 30% of NHS emissions do in fact come from buildings and transport.

The remaining 70% of emissions on the other hand are attributable to decisions made in clinical care- made up procurement and services.  What we do with patients is critical.  Efficient and sustainable healthcare is now part of the day job for healthcare professionals.

 This includes taking a radical approach towards embedding the principles of sustainable practice into the clinical care pathways. It means focusing on promoting good health instead of fixing illness- the latter of which costs vastly more money and carbon. It means empowering people to manage their health themselves so that staff time and resources can be saved and care improved in the long term. It means thinking about how to minimise wastage in care pathways and it means embracing low carbon technologies (often digital ones) to improve how services are delivered.

Ultimately pursuing such changes puts a lot of power in the hand of healthcare professionals. Cycling to work despite the long shift ahead, is no longer the biggest environmental impact they can have – rather it’s about influencing how care is delivered to make real carbon and financial savings whilst maintaining high standards of care. 

Nurses have an instinct for efficiency and as the healthcare professionals who guide and oversee the patient’s journey through the health system, they are uniquely placed to redesign healthcare to benefit NHS purse, patient and planet.  Nurses have a huge and undervalued role to plan in prevention, self-care and empowerment, as well as making changes to some of the most frequent and essential care pathways.  I know from experience how dispiriting it is to see the lack of resources and to feel locked into re-treading wasteful paths with patient after patient.  There is another way and many ‘green nurses’ around the country are taking hold of their clinical and make small changes and large. 

If we could say with proud confidence that we have whittled out of healthcare all the inefficiencies, over treatments, low value interventions, poorly evidence pharmaceuticals, unnecessary journeys etc, etc. then we could go to the rest of the economy and say we’ve done what we can, savings will need to be found elsewhere.  We can’t say that and given the risks to health from climate change it is vital that we take ambitious steps at whatever level we find ourselves. 

Making Nursing greener:

The Centre for Sustainable Healthcare seeks to empower and inspire healthcare professionals to embed sustainable approaches in their practice. We link up nurses around the country who share an interest or a passion for green nursing through the Green Nurse Network, enabling them to connect, share ideas, be inspired to try out new approaches and put theory into practice to make nursing a more sustainable practice.  Come and join the Green Nurse Network and contribute what you know and ask about what you don’t.

We would love you to share any ideas or interventions you’ve tried to make nursing more sustainable. These might include:

  • reducing resource use in your nursing practice
  • changing patient pathways for leaner care
  • demonstrating ways in which the patient’s knowledge and understanding can contribute to their care, especially in chronic illness
  • initiatives that promote prevention
  • protecting patients or the public from the health effects of climate change
  • sharing your experience of caring for those who’ve suffered as a result of climate change

Let us know on the Green Nurse Network:

Some of the resources available: