Collaborating to boost sustainability in healthcare

Collaborating to boost sustainability in healthcare

SJ Leatherdale, Partner, Odgers Interim Health & Life Sciences, recently hosted with her colleague Hannah Wade, Associate Partner for Berwick Partners a webinar on healthcare sustainability featuring a three-strong panel of speakers with expertise in the field: Heidi Barnard, Scott Brady and Ingeborg Dybdal Oie.

The event began with SJ Leatherdale explaining that we at Odgers (OI, OB and Berwick Partners) put a real emphasis on sustainability and are proud to be the first global executive search firm to receive accreditation for our targets to futureproof business growth via a clearly defined pathway to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, approved by the independent Science Based Targets initiative.  

The first panellist to speak was Heidi Barnard, former Group Head of Sustainability at the Northern Care Alliance NHS Foundation Trust, and now Head of Sustainability at NHS Supply Chain. Heidi came into the NHS in August 2019 after 15 years in the private sector in sustainability and environmental/compliance roles at a company in manufacturing and construction. While there were similarities between the NCA and her previous private sector employer – both were large, complex organisations with lots of people – “where they were and what the issues were from a maturity point of view could not have been more different.”   

Six months in, the pandemic hit providing an opportunity to “learn by doing” and a lot of Heidi’s time was devoted to waste and energy management issues. Then, having set up a sustainability function at NCA, in 2022 Heidi moved to NHS Supply Chain, which she saw as an amazing opportunity to make a difference given that what NHS Trusts buy has a huge impact on sustainability.

“There are always challenges within the NHS, but in particular we know we're in an election year – so there's going to be a lot of stuff around that,” said Heidi. “We've got an increasing number of programmes that are being run through the NHS. In particular, we think about the pandemic recovery and getting on top of waiting lists. One of the big challenges for us is how often people see sustainability as competing with all these other priorities. For me, that is never the case. It’s not about competing; it's about how do these two things work together? And if we deliver this particular project or programme, there are massive sustainability benefits: the two can coalesce and coexist, delivering outcomes for the other.”

Consequently, Heidi said there is a big ongoing issue around challenging the “constant need to pit things against each other” to better work together.” NHS Supply Chain, she added, was running many programmes, particularly around the circular economy in an effort to increase reusability and “get over our single use addiction”. She also warned of the dangers of tunnel vision arising from too great a focus on carbon emissions reduction, because “other impacts will come and bite you in the bum if you're not careful.”

Heidi made the point that we live in a world where supply chains are often part of a very complex, multinational pipeline and it is vital to try not to overcomplicate things for anybody trying to interact with them. Organisations must also be mindful of the increasing scrutiny their ESG claims are subjected to – and take as much care with the Social dimension as with the Environmental. The “emerging agenda around green skills and green jobs” means green skills need to be embedded across every job as they are part of everybody's role, but there is a big difference between such green jobs and the key skills and requirements for sustainability professionals.

Scott Brady, a sustainability professional for the past 13 years with expertise in carbon management, held roles at organisations such as the Scottish Government and Health Care Without Harm Europe before moving into international consultancy.  He specialises in reducing emissions, improving climate resilience, project and programme management, developing policy and carbon literacy.

Scott began by sharing the illuminating statistics that Healthcare accounts for 4.4% of global emissions – pretty significant for a single sector – over 70% of which is in the supply chain. Moreover, if Healthcare was itself a country, it would be the fifth largest emitter on the planet.

“Healthcare is in this weird space,” said Scott. “It's a significant contributor to climate change in terms of the emissions that it releases, but at the same time it's also a frontline service tasked with dealing with the health impacts of climate change. I always say, if this was a business it would be the perfect business model because they are creating their own customers! And that's not really what you want to do in Healthcare.”

In full agreement with Heidi, Scott identified “conflicting priorities” as an important issue to resolve. As Healthcare leaders wrestle with staff shortages, beds in corridors, equipment that needs to be fixed and so on, sustainability can be viewed as a troublesome add-on. Furthermore, as a seemingly endless series of floods and heatwaves make headlines, many people feel overwhelmed by the scale of the challenges.

While there is no silver bullet or magic wand to make those challenges disappear, Scott said the best way forward is to build up a toolbox to deal with such challenges whenever and wherever they appear. “There's need for strategy, there's need for putting systems in place, for governance, for structures. These things are all fairly obvious. And I think, for the most part, we're achieving this in the UK. We can always be better, but at least we've got those systems.”

Following on from that, Scott elaborated, is the need to build networks that embrace the many health systems, healthcare facilities, healthcare professionals “who are having massive headaches trying to sell this idea to their senior leaders. Having that network, having that community, if for no other reason than a shoulder to cry on when you're banging your head against a wall, it all helps build the momentum. But what it also gives us is opportunities to avoid reinventing the wheel as well; so we can start to borrow ideas, start stealing ideas, adapt them to our own situations. We can see what this health system or this health facility is doing over here. And we can think, well, it's proven, we can perhaps apply something similar here. We've got this opportunity to start sharing knowledge and sharing ideas.”

Another vital element is building a solid business case for sustainability interventions. To be convincing this must address return on investment and talk about health co-benefits as well. And demonstrate the added value. For instance, fitting solar panels is not just good for carbon reduction, it is also good for energy security.   

Ingeborg Dybdal Oie brought a different perspective to the discussion as she is not a career sustainability professional but rather has a background in finance and investment. A former CFO at medical device company CMR Surgical and then digital health company Huma, she recently transitioned to a role at Agreena, a scale-up enabling environmental and economic sustainability in agriculture.   

Food systems, Ingeborg said, are vital for our health. Around a quarter of the world’s GHG emissions come from food and agriculture. “At the same time, we're also degrading the quality of our farmland by very intensive practices, which does lead to depletion of nutrition in the food that we're eating. It is linked.”

Ingeborg added that while, given the size of the challenges, action on sustainability may sometimes appear futile, there was cause for optimism. Especially regarding collaboration.  “I'm encouraged by, and encouraging people to think about, ecosystems. These things all do work together. Even if the part that you're in feels very small, it's only when everyone is pushing a bit on the same agenda that change happens.”

Given the fascinating and important nature of the topic, the hour-long webinar hurtled by and at the end a series of interesting questions were raised and addressed. How can and does NHS Supply Chain ensure that medical supplies, equipment and pharmaceuticals are sourced sustainably? How does the NHS collaborate with other organisations, both nationally and internationally, to share best practice and advanced sustainability efforts? What is the importance of healthy soils in mitigating climate change and supporting ecological wellbeing, and how can that then help Healthcare and public health? Naturally, our panel provided illuminating answers. A huge amount is happening in the Healthcare sustainability space and if you would like to talk about the executive talent dimension, please contact either SJ Leatherdale or Hannah Wade.


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