One of the reasons sustainability is often not taken seriously in business is that executives think “there is nothing we can do to address this issue”. In most cases, this is not true. In the digital health space, for example, few would think about sustainability. But taking sustainability seriously in the digital health space can not only contribute to the achievement of several UN sustainable development goals, it can also generate significant business upsides.
Digital health solutions (DHS) can directly or indirectly support the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 3, 5, 10, 12 and 13
Connecting digital health and environmental sustainability, particularly in the context of electronic health records (EHRs), can lead to significant indirect environmental benefits which would otherwise be hard to achieve
Smartphone and AI based DHS solutions can help democratise access to medical expertise in developing countries, empower women and reduce child mortality
Taking the sustainability potential of DHS seriously is not only an ethical imperative, but can also result in new business opportunities in rapidly growing emerging markets as well as the potential to reduce costs and pre-empt future regulation
To maximise the potential of DHS to help implement the SDGs, leaders must include the SDGs into their long-term business strategy and product designers need to adopt a triple bottom line approach and follow specific design principles.
The rise of digital health care
Digital health solutions and health information technology are systematically transforming the way health care is delivered in the 21st century. Telemedicine and digital diagnostics solutions such as Kry, HealthTap, Ada or Gyant enable patients to receive remote and fast diagnostics in a more convenient way, electronic health records such as HealthSpek, Vivy and the TK App enable users to manage their health data and innovative smartphone applications provide patients with effective treatment, prevention or disease management solutions for conditions ranging from diabetes to depression.
Why should sustainability be an issue in healthcare? And why should we care?
But can digital health solutions also contribute to the implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)? To address this question, let’s look at 5 of the 17 SDGs:
Goal 3: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
Goal 10: Reduce inequality within and among countries
Goal 12: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
Goal 13: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts
The impact of DHS on SDG 3 is direct and obvious, and the primary purpose of DHS. This is not the case for SDGs 5, 10, 12 and 13, however. How should digital health solutions reduce inequality? And a connection between digital health and environmental sustainability may seem even more far-fetched. Nevertheless, making this connection is justified because it is already proven that digital solutions have the potential to create significant sustainability upsides in other industries, such as transportation, agriculture, manufacturing and energy.
Digital health is a particularly interesting area to consider, because some DHS are relevant for a large number of people and can achieve high market penetration. This is a luxury which solutions primarily centred around e.g. environmental sustainability rarely enjoy. If DHS would create sustainability benefits, these effects would therefore benefit from high market penetration and could potentially create large scale positive impact.
Sceptics may argue that it is difficult enough to transform the complex health care system, and that thinking about SDGs would only distract from that effort. But the SDGs are not intended to be a distraction. The Business and Sustainable Development Commission estimates that applying the SDGs to foster innovation and economic growth could generate $12 trillion each year in market opportunities and up to 380 million new jobs by 2030, and DHS offer the potential to explore new markets with high growth potential.
Furthermore, it has been shown that taking sustainability into account early during the design process of digital services can lead to the development of more innovative services and products. At the same time, the SDGs likely point to stricter upcoming regulation and new reporting standards, which can present substantial competitive advantages if acted upon pre-emptively by DHS providers. So it is far from certain that sustainability would be a cost creator, and instead might actually result in significant economic upsides.
Let’s now look at some of the areas where DHS may directly or indirectly help implement the SDGs 5, 10, 12 and 13.
1 - Reducing CO2 emissions and paper consumption through EHRs and telemedicine
Electronic health records (EHRs) enable patients to not only store digital versions of their health records, but also to request them from and exchange them with health care providers. Digital copies of patients health records could therefore substitute the use of paper, and make the use of paper based health records obsolete.
Based on an estimate by Kaiser Permanente, a US health insurer, the average outpatient paper based health record (chart) weighs 0,36kg, the average in patient chart weighs 0,62 kg, with 70% of the paper based records from outpatient care, and 30% from inpatient care. Replacing these records with EHRs, Kaiser Permanente calculated a savings potential of over 21.000 tons of CO2, which represents the amount of carbon sequestered by over 4.000 acres of fir or pine forest.
Telemedicine solutions and symptom checkers have the potential to reduce the need for ambulatory visits, and if visits take place, a patient equipped with a complete electronic health record will enjoy more productive visits, with better outcomes being able to be achieved with fewer visits, and less unnecessary double treatments. Telemedicine and EHR can result in a reduction of in-person visits by up to 26%,