Is saving lives, killing the planet?

When collecting a prescription from the pharmacy, or going for a vaccination, how often do you think of smokestacks, pollution, and environmental damage? Probably never. But you should. Intensive energy use, including heating, ventilation, and air conditioning in healthcare facilities, including medicines manufacturing, produces large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions – in fact, the healthcare industry is more carbon-intensive, than the automotive industry. However, with diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease rising in the global population, healing people is no justification for killing the planet. So, how can we go on making life-saving medicines, and save the environment at the same time?

Globally, the healthcare sector is responsible for 4.4% of carbon emissions, leading to climate change, which in turn is leading to disease outbreaks, food shortages, fossil fuel scarcity, loss of biodiversity, wildfires, and flooding. In fact, it is even estimated that climate change itself accounts for millions of deaths each year. For example, greenhouse gases contribute significantly to air pollution that prematurely kills more than seven million people a year, and makes a major contribution to long-term chronic diseases, that require treatment and hospitalisation, which in turn contributes to increased health sector spending and emissions.

Living in these challenging times calls out for change. To cut emissions and combat environmental and health impacts, the healthcare sector needs to act now.

More than half of the healthcare sector’s footprint is attributable to energy use, primarily consumption of electricity, gas, steam, and air conditioning supply combined with health sector operational emissions. As of 2021, active healthcare construction projects tracked by one global research firm were valued at more than $500 billion dollars, and in addition the sector is set to grow and build a significant number of new facilities between now and 2050. Therefore, a key focus needs to be on decarbonising healthcare buildings and infrastructure.

A key route to decarbonising the healthcare sector is ensuring that every healthcare building, health product manufacturing facility, and their infrastructure is used effectively. Ask the question, is it energy efficient and is it zero carbon in operations?

By targeting energy usage, while employing lower carbon and more circular construction practices, it has been calculated that a cumulative emissions reduction of at least 17.8 Gigatonnes CO2e is possible by 2050 – the equivalent of taking 3.9 billion cars off the road for a whole year.

In the UK, we are making progress, but not fast enough. We need disruptive innovation in the construction sector to help the healthcare sector reach its ambitious targets. An example of such, is happening right now in the Northeast of England, by Northumberland-based Merit – the UK’s leading industrialised construction and manufacturing specialist. Focussed on the design, manufacture, build and validation of advanced manufacturing facilities, with up to 92% of construction and validation happening offsite, buildings are completed in less than half the time of traditional construction methods, at a fixed price, and are net zero carbon in operation enabled. Classed as a ‘disruptive’ innovator, the company is also heavily investing in digitalisation, robotics and automation that will increase productivity.

Merit has developed product-based solutions that can deliver standard healthcare facility layouts, via standard methodologies. The FLEXI POD®, is a hybrid solution of traditional build, comprising aspects of modern methods of construction for the shell and core, and an offsite manufactured fit out facilitated through PODs and Pre-Assembled Modules (PAMs). The UltraPOD® is an expandable full building solution that can be used as a standalone building or multiple UltraPOD®s can be configured to create a larger building.

The Merit iterative design, optimised product approach, means facilities have lower energy requirements as minimised pipework lengths and bends reduce the system resistance, allowing for smaller pumps and consequently reduced energy consumption.  All buildings eliminate the use of fossil fuels for heating and hot water systems, and instead heat recovery and heat pumps are used.

With factory-based manufacturing, where workers live locally, carbon footprint is significantly reduced compared to that associated with larger construction teams working onsite. Fewer onsite vehicle movements result in fuel reduction and costs associated with plant hire and vehicle hire, reducing emissions.

Another way to help decarbonise the construction of healthcare facilities, is by reutilising and recycling materials. Merit designs from the outset for more durable and adaptable facilities, creating a digital memory of what has gone into a structure, how it has been maintained, repaired, or replaced and thus at end-of-life what materials are available for reuse, recycling or recovery.

In addition, Merit has facilities operational in less than half the time of traditional methods of construction, as demonstrated last year, when they delivered Autlous’s new cell and gene therapy manufacturing facility in record breaking time – where project conception to facility validation was achieved in just 17 months – enabling the production of 6,000 blood cancer treatments, meaning ultimately, patients receive life-saving medicines sooner. Therefore, the Merit way is not only helping save the planet but saving more lives at the same time!