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Why pharma needs to ‘walk the talk’ on improving the greener patient journey

By Kate Harrison

Kate Pogson
Despite this century delivering some seismic global events, including COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine, the climate crisis has never been far from society’s mind. Much of the public dialogue has been about the role of the individual in making greener choices to protect our future selves but, unsurprisingly, the role of business has also come under scrutiny to assess how major corporations, including the life sciences sector, are achieving their economic, environmental and social obligations.

The core mission of the pharmaceutical industry to discover new ways to improve and extend people’s lives is already central to driving positive societal change. But two main factors are encouraging an evolution in the industry’s mission: an improved understanding of the societal determinants of ill-health and the race to net zero.

The correlation and causation between pollution, climate change and ill health are widely accepted, therefore the role of the life sciences’ industry must evolve from not just looking at innovative ways to tackle the manifestations of disease, but address the root cause.

By tackling the challenges of climate change we will reduce pollution and address environmental and health inequalities experienced by widespread populations.

As COVID-19 has shown us, in a globalised world where disease can strike rapidly across continents, we all need to support a healthy planet for our long-term survival and now, as the world wakes up to the impact of climate change, the sector must demonstrate how it is playing its part in driving strategies to minimise carbon emissions and promote sustainable healthcare systems.

There is an opportunity for the life sciences sector to reduce carbon emissions from its research, development and operational processes, as health systems and regulatory authorities now consider the carbon impact of medicines as well as their clinical outcomes in approval and reimbursement processes.

Companies are looking afresh at their R&D processes and supply chain management, with many looking at renewable energy sources to power their supply chain operations, investigating greener mechanisms for medicine delivery, supporting and promoting device recycling and a host of other operational initiatives as they edge ever closer to net zero and nature positive 2030 targets.

These commitments, which come with significant investments by businesses to future-proof their operations, are not just to appease a minority of activist greener shareholders; these are business-critical strategies to protect their licence to operate.

Investing in CSR programmes has business as well as societal benefits, by increasing customer retention and employee engagement, improving brand image, attracting investment opportunities, improving stakeholder relations and mitigating against policies that may restrict access to medicines on non-clinical grounds.

Beware however, the temptation to over- promise and not ‘walk the talk’. Some companies have been accused of ‘green washing’ to improve their public credentials and appeal to investors. Increasingly, corporate green credentials are being scrutinised by specialist tech firms that aggregate millions of data points to measure how public companies perform on environmental markers such as carbon footprint, pollution prevention and water conservation.

In March 2020, the European Council adopted a climate change law that legally obliges its 27 nations to collectively cut greenhouse emissions by 55% by 2030 – from 1990 levels – and to become a net-zero-emissions economy by 2050.

However, this will prove to be more of a challenge for certain sectors than others. In the recent NHS paper on Delivering a ‘Net Zero’ National Health Service, one of the main challenges for the pharmaceutical industry is how to reduce emissions from medicines, which currently account for 25% of emissions. Proposals to achieve these goals, which are often drafted by environmental rather than clinical policymakers, are well meaning and are tinder for dialogue and action. However, when identifying opportunities to reduce these emissions, it is vital that environmental policymakers engage with clinical teams, patient groups and industry early on in the planning stage to identify solutions that do not inadvertently put patients at risk. In many cases, the ‘greenest’ patient is the well-managed patient whose disease is well controlled so that exacerbations and hospital admissions are reduced.

So, what does this all mean for us as health communicators? As communicators operating within the heart of the pharmaceutical industry, we play a pivotal role in helping to shape the green narrative, advising clients how to navigate a new sustainable future and encouraging them to focus early on their environmental credentials. Our role is to remain ahead of the curve, to engage colleagues in discussion about these issues at every opportunity and to provide hope that scientific discoveries can unlock the potential of a better future.

Kate Harrison is Head of Health at MHP

13th December 2022

From: Marketing, Healthcare

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