NHS should invest more to promote health and sustainable development says The King's Fund

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The NHS could save millions of pounds and improve thousands of people's lives every year by investing in local communities and more sustainable practices, says a report, Claiming the Health Dividend: Unlocking the benefits of NHS spending, published today by The King's Fund.

As the NHS is the largest single organisation in the country it has unparalleled purchasing power. It could use that power more effectively to promote better health - which is, after all, one of its main goals.

Claiming the Health Dividend, edited by Anna Coote, calls on NHS trusts to invest now in tackling unemployment, boosting local business, reducing the amount of waste they produce and making their buildings more energy-efficient. If they do, they will reap rich rewards later on.

The report shows that the NHS is Britain's biggest employer, biggest food buyer and one of the biggest producers of waste. By using its massive resources to benefit local communities and safeguard the environment, the NHS can improve people's health and reduce demand for health care.

Anna Coote, The King's Fund director of public health, said:

'The NHS employs more than one million people. Thousands more work in businesses that supply services to the NHS. Many of the NHS trusts with the worst staff vacancy rates are located in areas of high unemployment, which makes people more vulnerable to illness, so they come to the NHS as patients, not employees. By offering training and small business opportunities to local residents, trusts can tackle unemployment, improve health, and help to resolve their own staff shortages.

'The NHS spends £11 billion on buying goods and services each year, including more than 12 million loaves of bread and 55,000 gallons of orange juice. Yet an estimated £144 million worth of food is wasted each year.

'Each NHS hospital also produces an average of 10 tonnes of waste a week, more than two-thirds of which has to be incinerated. If trusts were able to reduce the amount they waste, by using resources more carefully and recycling where possible, a small amount of investment now could generate big savings for the future.

'The NHS is a major cause of travel – for staff, patients, visitors and freight delivery. Most of this travel is by road, which costs the NHS millions of pounds.'

Claiming the Health Dividend shows that where the NHS takes on this challenging agenda it can bring positive results. Examples include: 

  • The NHS in Bradford offers training in schools to prepare pupils for nursing, radiography and midwifery careers, predominantly for Asian girls.
  • The Royal Free Hospital in London spent £5 million installing combined heat and power in 1995, from which it has saved £872,000 each year in energy costs.
  • Manchester Royal Infirmary saved £14,000 in landfill costs simply by separating waste more efficiently and recycling paper.
  • Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge has invested in cycle facilities, encouraged car sharing and negotiated better bus links in order to reduce car parking space and greenhouse gas emissions.

Anna Coote continued: 'There has never been a better time to build a more sustainable health service. The NHS will receive unprecedented extra funds in the next five years. It is already committed to investing in child care, energy efficiency and big staffing increases. And the private finance initiative, in spite of drawbacks, does create an incentive for new health care buildings to be energy efficient.

'Seizing the moment will not be easy. Many NHS trusts are under so much pressure to meet government targets that they have no flexibility to think long-term. A lot of primary care trusts are still coming to terms with their new responsibilities and may feel they are too small to make a difference. But if the nettle is grasped and the opportunity taken, the NHS could make a big difference to people's health and help to ensure its own long-term viability.'

Read the report: Claiming the Health Dividend: Unlocking the benefits of NHS spending

Notes to editors

Claiming the Health Dividend: Unlocking the benefits of NHS spending, edited by Anna Coote, is available from The King's Fund bookshop on 020 7307 2591, price £10.

The report contains chapters examining what the NHS can do to promote better health through employment practices, purchasing policies, child care, food buying, waste management, travel, energy and building.

For interviews and review copies of the report, please contact Daniel Reynolds on 020 7307 2581 or 07831 554927.