Life Science and Pharmaceutical Industry

How digital technologies can make healthcare companies more sustainable

This blog post looks at how the coherent use of digital technologies can enhance sustainability.

Digital Technology in Healthcare

For the healthcare sector, sustainability is becoming more and more important. There are, in our view, three main reasons for this: pressure from legislators, customers and employees; sustainability-related opportunities; and last but not least the fact that more and more companies feel a moral obligation to do business responsibly.

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Digitalisation represents an exciting opportunity to boost sustainability right across the healthcare ecosystem. That starts with the innovation processes that, hot on the heels of the digital transformation, are now helping to accelerate the sustainability transformation. 

But digital technologies in themselves also have significant potential to boost sustainability. There are plenty of examples in other sectors – the paperless office, for example, which has made it possible for large numbers of workers to work from home, saving millions of commuter miles. There are also more efficient products that, through the use of digital technologies, now consume less energy.  

Sustainability transformation through digital technologies 

Another highly promising area is the use of data to boost the sustainability of products and processes. Examples include reducing offcuts and waste, optimising transport routes and loads, management of expiry dates, and using predictive ordering to avoid waste. There’s so much potential in just this area alone that we’ve dedicated an entire blog post to it.  

In the healthcare sector, we think there are three main areas where coherent use of digital technologies can deliver greater sustainability and accelerate the sustainability transformation: 

  • more efficient, more sustainable processes and products 

  • networking of products and manufacturing to leverage their sustainability potential 

  • more efficient data handling and the use of telemedicine 

1. Data handling and telemedicine as sustainability drivers 

Improved data handling is likely to be of particular interest to healthcare companies, as it’s an area where sustainability goes hand in hand with cost savings. An obvious example is the digitisation of patient data. Large amounts of patient data (from case summaries, to diagnostic reports, to medical records, etc.) are still recorded on paper. There are also countless DVDs filled with X-ray and MRI scan images. All of this has to be physically manufactured and transported. End-to-end digitisation of these records will make the healthcare system more sustainable, more efficient and, in the long term, reduce costs.  

Telemedicine offers similar potential. Unless the patient walks or cycles, every face-to-face appointment with a doctor produces greenhouse gas emissions and costs the patient valuable time. Patients also have to endure the waiting room, which, in the winter cold season in particular, is an excellent environment for disseminating infections. For many conditions, a face-to-face appointment is simply not necessary. Images from a smartphone camera or even just a verbal description of symptoms can be entirely sufficient for diagnosis.  

In specialist centres like care homes, additional technical equipment can be used to reduce the logistics involved in visiting the doctor. A good example is the AIDA project, coordinated by RWTH Aachen University. Other advantages of increased use of telemedicine include improved medical care in rural areas, the likelihood that patients will be less inhibited about seeking treatment (especially for embarrassing or stigmatised conditions) and a reduction in doctor and hospital workloads.  


Taking telemedicine to the next level 

Taking telemedicine a step further leads us to the idea of using it to deliver more care in the community. The idea is to increase the degree to which patients are cared for and treated at home, where they tend to feel safer and more at ease than in a hospital. This reduces the hospital workload and delivers significant cost savings. It's an approach that relies on apps and monitoring devices to monitor patient health.  

One example of this is digital pills. These are pill-like electronic devices which let medical professionals know whether or not a patient is taking their medication. This enables medication adherence to be monitored automatically without the direct involvement of medical staff – particularly helpful in mental health conditions, dementia and cancer. A related development is the increased use of minimally invasive surgery techniques (keyhole surgery). Because recovery from minimally-invasive procedures is quicker and less painful, it facilitates the shift to caring for patients at home.  

In common with other areas where digital technologies intersect with people, it is crucial that developments such as telemedicine and greater care delivery in the home place people at their centre. Companies pursuing these approaches purely in order to reduce costs may, as a by-product, also be helping the environment. But if these developments come at the expense of the personal relationship between doctor and patient, they may be taking us further away from meeting other sustainability goals.

2. Sustainability transformation through more efficient products and processes 

Digital technologies can also contribute to bringing more sustainable products and treatments onto the market. One example is digital therapeutics (DTx) or digital health apps – apps able to be used in lieu of drugs and other treatments. Examples include apps for treating migraine and tinnitus and apps for supporting people with chronic diseases or disabilities. 

From a sustainability perspective, the advantages include: 

  • Patients experience no drug-related side effects. 

  • Fewer drug prescriptions reduce the environmental burden from their manufacture, transport, marketing and consumption (and also reduces drug residues in waste water). 

Another approach is the use of digital offerings such as companion apps to support the patient journey. These can enhance sustainability by, for example, replacing a dedicated control unit with a smartphone or tablet app. Companion apps for drugs can improve adherence, improving treatment outcomes. One successful example is the easypod digital ecosystem for growth hormone therapy. This system results in fewer devices, and therefore reduced resource use, and in lower medication volumes.

3. Sustainability transformation through the Internet of Things 

The third area where coherent use of digital technologies can deliver greater sustainability is the products themselves and their manufacture. This is about on the one hand helping to realise a circular economy and on the other networking devices in the Internet of Things (IoT). With respect to the former, digitalisation technologies such as digital twins can help to improve product take-back, repairs, re-use and lifespan (cf. also product-as-a-service).  

With industrial IoT, on the other hand, it’s primarily about networking manufacturing equipment. The data generated can be used for purposes such as minimising reject goods or optimising raw material and energy use. There’s also the Internet of Medical Things (IoMT). One of the benefits of IoMT is that it enables manufacturers to learn more about how products are actually used in practice. This data can offer a good foundation for sustainability engineering (see our blog post, “Making products and manufacturing more sustainable"). We take a more detailed look at using data to meet sustainability goals in our blog post, “Sustainability in the healthcare sector – the power of data ”.  

Sustainability vision as key to success 

There’s one thing that the above fields – data handling and telemedicine, more efficient, more sustainable products, and networking of products and manufacturing equipment – have in common. To take full advantage of the opportunities that the coherent use of digital technologies creates in these areas, companies need to pursue a sustainability vision. Failure to do so risks gaining nothing more from deploying these new technologies than a reduction in manufacturing costs.  

You can read more about how businesses can develop an effective sustainability vision in the first post in this series, “Three reasons medtech and pharma need a sustainability vision in 2023 ”.  

Part three of this series will look at using data to fire up your sustainability.  

Other insights in our blogpost series "Sustainability in the Health-ecosystem":

Aud Frese, Senior Business Development Manager, Zuehlke Germany
Contact person for Germany

Aud Frese

Senior Business Development Managerin

Aud Frese is Senior Business Development Manager and Market Team Leader – Medical Technology & Healthcare Industry in the Zühlke Group. Her focus is on digital innovation, business strategies and product development. Aud Frese has a degree in Medical Informatics and has many years of experience in medical technology and the health sector.

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