SHIL’s call for innovative ideas can help Scottish healthcare take next steps in reducing carbon, costs and improving patient outcomes

Following the Cop26 climate conference in Glasgow, the spotlight has fallen on sustainable, forward thinking, indigenous innovation that can help Scottish organisations to adapt, develop and strengthen in response to climate change – a vital part of a global challenge in which we must all increasingly play a role.

In particular, the need for a more sustainably-focussed healthcare system has never been clearer.

Climate change continues to result in poorer health for the Scottish populace – indeed, there are about 2,000 premature deaths each year in Scotland due to poor air quality, while physical and mental health impacts of climate change inevitably affect demand for NHS services.

At the same time, NHS Scotland is coming under increasing pressure to reduce its environmental impact. In delivering its many vital services, NHS Scotland consumes huge amounts of resources and produces significant volumes of waste. That is why it has committed to becoming a “net-zero” greenhouse gas emissions organisation by 2045 at the latest.

The change process is already in motion. Orkney’s Balfour Hospital – the country’s first to be built to a net-zero standard – opened in 2019 with the running of the building contributing no carbon emissions thanks to air-to-water heat pumps generating all of its hot water and heating. Furthermore, solar roof panels reduce its reliance on the grid.

Balfour Hospital is just one positive example, but the NHS Scotland net zero emissions target will require unprecedented change in how the organisation operates, particularly given the age of many of its infrastructure assets.

Nevertheless, it is clear that the corresponding benefits will be significant and lasting. Health boards which successfully identify solutions to climate change can help protect their populations from short and longer-term environmental impacts while making a substantial contribution to reducing national and global emissions.

Improving operational efficiency from both a carbon and cost perspective while also maintaining, or ideally, improving the quality of care received by patients, is the ambition.

So, how can all of this be achieved? Significant work is undoubtedly required right across NHS Scotland in tandem with the focussed commitment of staff at all levels.

Great work has already been done, but we need to build on that and scale it up further. Fundamentally, we need to give an enthusiastic, energetic workforce the resources and backing they need in order to facilitate lasting change.

While long-term strategic projects such as net-zero hospital builds, improved maintenance of existing buildings, and review of supply chains will have the largest impacts, they are only a few pieces in a much larger puzzle that includes greater greenspace and biodiversity, more on-site recycling, and a wider need for innovation embedded in both clinical care and in organisational processes – all supported by a forward-thinking digital framework – if we are to address the full environmental impact.

The behaviours of NHS Scotland’s 160,000-strong workforce will influence how the service mitigates and adapts to climate change impacts. Encouraging this diverse workforce to come up with new ways of working is at the heart of the latest Scottish Health Innovations Ltd (SHIL) innovation call.

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Indeed, a package of financial and project support is being made available for health and social care staff with green ideas that can be developed into commercial products.

Ideas fitting the green and sustainable theme may range from multiplex or lower carbon devices, to new greener packaging methods which can be composted or recycled rather than sent to landfill. New surgical equipment could incorporate plant-based sutures or dressings.

Alternatively, digital solutions might help reduce patient journey requirements, while sensor technology could reduce fridge and freezer monitoring – there really is no limit. Ideas may be simple or complex and can spring from any NHS health board and any role or medical discipline.

The SHIL team has worked in partnership with NHS Scotland since 2002 and more than 2,000 innovative ideas have been assessed, resulting in the successful development and commercialisation of a range of medical devices, products and technologies, formation of seven spin-outs, negotiation of more than 25 UK and international commercial licence deals, and protection of more than 250 NHS inventions.

All green ideas submitted will be rapidly assessed and the SHIL team will support selected innovations
from concept to final product. The support package includes up to £25,000 of initial funding, regulatory assistance, project management, and extensive innovation expertise.

Graham Watson, executive chairman of SHIL, said: “The net zero emissions target poses a key healthcare challenge, but we are in no doubt that it can be achieved.

“Of course, excellence in healthcare remains the priority, but that’s not to say that a choice needs to be made – innovation that achieves sustainable outcomes can, and should be, entirely complementary to the enduring everyday drive for healthcare excellence.

“That’s why our sustainability call is so important at this time – because NHS Scotland’s strides towards net zero can improve vital patient care, while achieving major lasting environmental and financial
benefits too.

“A greener health service that responds to environmental risks and meaningfully changes the way it operates is a better health service.”

Robert Rea, head of innovation at SHIL, added: “We are proud to say that the sustainable message is getting through. We are already seeing individuals and teams across NHS Scotland proactively pulling together to analyse and embed new ways in which they can be more environmentally conscious on a daily basis.

“Improving patient care has always been the primary objective of our innovation calls, but this is a really pivotal moment for the climate change agenda and we want everyone across the health and social care system to be inspired to play their part.

“Reusable PPE, such as visors, sanitiser bottles, and launderable gowns, has come on the back of the Covid pandemic – but we need to continue fostering that mindset at all levels starting with this sustainability call.”

Jane Hopton, programme director and sustainability lead at NHS Lothian, said: “Climate change represents the biggest risk to health of the 21st century. Health services will need to respond to the challenge by reducing their environmental impact, placing sustainability at the core of the organisation and developing greener and more environmentally sustainable models of care.

“The call for innovation from SHIL is a much-needed opportunity for innovation in greener initiatives
and higher quality care for patients and communities.

“We know from NHS Lothian that commitment and ideas from staff and patients are growing and access to innovation support through SHIL will accelerate getting these ideas into practice. NHS Lothian welcomes and will be supporting this call.”

Martin Hill of NHS Lothian said: “As vice chair of NHS Lothian, a member of the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) board, and a founding trustee of Climate Action Strathaven, I am very proud of what NHS Lothian has achieved over recent times to raise the profile and understanding of what climate change and sustainability mean in the context of our health services and systems.

“However, we have to ‘up our game’ in the NHS and that means doing even more to engage our staff,
suppliers and patients to reimagine what health services and pathways of care could look like in a sustainable and green world and then to deliver it.”

Partner Content in association with Scottish Health Innovations Ltd

Full details on the SHIL innovation call can be found at