The NHS is the largest employer in Britain and is responsible for around 4% of the nation’s carbon emissions. In a document published last year, the NHS set out its commitment to tackling climate change by reducing emissions to ‘net zero’ with the aim of becoming the first ‘net zero’ national health service. In order to reduce the carbon footprint and reduce the environmental impact of NHS services, rural 5G connectivity and innovations in digital healthcare have a key role to play.
Shropshire and Worcestershire are both predominantly rural counties. Shropshire’s land mass is 97.5% rural and 42.8% of the population live in this area, while Worcestershire’s land mass is 84% rural and 26% of the population live in this area. These counties are served by 60 GP practices in Worcestershire and 51 in Shropshire providing services to both urban and rural communities. Providing services to remote villages and hamlets can be particularly challenging for local authorities and healthcare providers alike, both financially and logistically.
The NHS estimates that approximately 3.5% (9.5 billion miles) of all road travel in England relates to patients, visitors, staff and suppliers to the NHS, contributing around 14% of the system’s total emissions. This includes approximately 4% for business travel and fleet transport, 5% for patient travel, 4% for staff commutes and 1% for visitor travel. By implementing a rural 5G network and then utilising the benefits that 5G connectivity brings to digital healthcare solutions, West Mercia Rural 5G project aims to show a reduction in travel by staff, patients, and visitors.
One of these digital healthcare solutions is remote monitoring which is being trialled within the WMR5G project, and which fits with the new service model for the 21st century as part of the NHS Long Term Plan. Major changes to the service model include: boosting ‘out-of-hospital’ care; people will get more control over their own health, and more personalised care when they need it; and digitally-enabled primary and outpatient care will become mainstream across the NHS.
Remote monitoring enables people with long term conditions to be monitored in their home environment. Any fluctuations in their health data allow health professionals to quickly identify a deteriorating patient and make an early intervention, often preventing a hospital admission or visit to an Emergency department. Remote monitoring also enables hospitals to deliver early supported discharge and virtual ward services, so a patient can return home early after a stay in hospital whilst their healthcare provider still monitors their vital signs.
Virtual wards offer ‘wrap-around’ support to people in their home environment which is clearly beneficial to the patient. Care closer to home and in the community also avoids unnecessary travel. The NHS estimates that the reduction in travel could save up to 8.5 million km and 1.7 ktCO2e per year.
Findings and benefits from the WMR5G trials can be extrapolated to all areas within the UK, especially those with similar rural communities, through the roll-out of a sustainable rural 5G network, and the digital innovations for healthcare that can then run through 5G.
Within its Net Zero ambition, the NHS sees the use of telehealth and web-based communications as important, as well as the uptake of ‘Internet of Things’ to provide health sensors and wearables to monitor health at home. It is hoped that the Health and Social Care use case trials within the WMR5G project will support this vision, and help the UK Government to deploy 5G into rural communities, thus providing the NHS with an efficient and effective platform to deploy their digital services.