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Responding to the climate crisis with healthcare innovation

Staff can see where carbon can be saved

Deepa Korea, the Director of the RCN Foundation, looks at how nurses and midwives can intervene in reducing carbon emissions within the sector.

With the internationally significant COP27 gathering now underway in Egypt, and the realities of climate breakdown on the news, it feels more important than ever that the healthcare sector plays its part in the effort to reduce further impacts.

Whether the UK's leaders attend COP or not, nursing and midwifery staff have a practical role to play in addressing the climate crisis. As with any sector, our day-to-day activities ultimately help deliver key UN sustainable development goals.

Healthcare workers are there for patients affected by the climate crisis, such as those with respiratory illnesses. Their impact is significant and potentially far-reaching in terms of developing innovation and also in raising public awareness.

Nurses, who belong to the profession voted consistently as the most trusted by the public, can particularly amplify the need for action.

What’s more, we know that those living in deprived communities are more adversely affected by the climate crisis. Therefore, tackling this issue is also central to addressing the health inequality agenda.

Funding innovation on our doorstep

That’s why the RCN Foundation, alongside the other members of the RCN Group (RCN and RCNi) partnered with NHS England and NHS Improvement in October to host a virtual conference on greener nursing practice.

The conference focused on practical and innovative things that the nursing and midwifery professions could do to reduce CO2 emissions and improve the health of patients. Elizabeth Iro, the World Health Organisation’s Chief Nurse gave the keynote speech.

As part of the event, nurses presented innovations that will reduce the carbon emissions within healthcare. It was a Dragon’s Den style panel, with the winner receiving a grant from the RCN Foundation to implement their project. I took part as a judge, or as I prefer it, a Dragon!

Three ideas for change

Clare Nash, the Head of Clinical Products Management at the Black Country Alliance, proposed the development of a decision support tool to help staff begin to quantify the climate impact of clinical items used every day when delivering care.

Over 60% of the NHS’s carbon emissions come from medicines and medical devices. Clare’s tool will help healthcare staff ensure that sustainability is considered when choosing a product, alongside quality, safety and value.

A tool that brings a sustainability focus in this way will support mindful use of finite resources, and perhaps also further innovations in the materials we use in nursing and midwifery professions.

The RCN Foundation is proud to say we will provide funding that supports Clare in developing this tool.

Another proposal came from Isobel Adamson, a community nurse in Penarth, who proposed creating pools of electric cars for community nurses in urban settings. This would reduce pollution, the overall carbon emissions of the service, and reduce mileage expenses.

A third proposal, from Carolyn Fleurat, a Midlands-based Operational Manager, explored the possibilities of creating sustainable food systems within care homes. This would enable patients and their families to spend time outside, and grow produce that also reduces the climate impact of care home food provisions.

Such interventions can make a cumulatively positive difference to address the issue of environmental sustainability, which affects us all.

That’s why the RCN Foundation is proud to support nurses and midwives who look at the big picture as they practice their professions. After all, we all have a role to play in tackling the climate emergency.