Why the future of healthcare needs to be sustainable

Ishaan Chaudhury
The future of sustainable healthcare HERO

Buying football boots as a youngster was always a personal highlight. The promise of a brand-new pair, that could potentially elevate my skills to those of Zinedine Zidane, epitomised the fantasied yet naïve visions of any young fan. However, the question was posed at the time: did I really need fancy new boots as opposed to just wanting them? Of course, I didn’t need them, and a less expensive or second-hand purchase represented a more sensible decision. A few years later, the theme of long-term pragmatism places an increasingly significant impact on brands as more decisions are made through the lens of sustainability.

As consumers, making small adjustments to our day-to-day routine is acceptable when they result in tangible benefits to the broader environment. From a healthcare perspective, it seems difficult that compromises, or especially sacrifices, should be applied to the development of treatments, particularly when improving health outcomes is key to a more sustainable society. So, what will big pharma do in order to keep producing the medications that we fundamentally need in a manner that is more sustainable? Breaking it down into the ‘3Ms’ of ‘Molecule’, ‘Manufacturing’ and ‘Marketing’ provides a glimpse into the future.


An overwhelming majority of ‘promising’ molecules fail to reach commercialisation, which highlights the vast amount of wasted resources in drug discovery. The use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a potential solution for a more sustainable approach: the painstaking human course of ‘trial and error’ in investigating how molecules interact with the components of a disease, such as cancerous cells, can be accelerated by AI-based technology. Tools that combine large data sets, configure machine learning and provide automation can help research scientists refine their approach and narrow down their list of molecules and targets much faster than ever before.

This technology can also be extended to the clinical trial setting, where AI is used to identify the suitable patients for a novel drug based on genetic profiles deemed most compatible for a drug’s mechanism of action. Many large companies are harnessing the use of AI, and Novartis recently announced a five-year partnership with Microsoft to integrate AI into their drug-discovery programme. Novartis’ CEO, Vas Narasimhan, suggested that the collaboration could help create a more targeted form of drug development in the era of ‘personalised medicine’, which could eventually lead to reduced costs.


The manufacture of drugs consumes great amounts of water, electricity and chemicals – much of which goes to waste. Companies are conscious of reducing their carbon footprint and finding smarter ways of production. Roche has been one of the big names to demonstrate a clear and planned commitment to long-term environmental goals. Lowering the amount of energy consumption, greenhouse gases and landfilling of organic chemicals are among several specific criteria to measure performance in the coming years.

These efforts have not gone unnoticed, with the Dow Jones Sustainability Indices (DJSI) ranking Roche as one of the most sustainable healthcare companies for the eleventh year running. This has been a source of immense pride for their CEO, Severin Schwan, who stated, ‘For us, sustainability means being a good corporate citizen and a trustworthy partner. This goes far beyond complying with mandatory requirements. It’s about creating an impact on society.’

‘For us, sustainability means being a good corporate citizen and a trustworthy partner.'

Severin Schwan, CEO, Roche

The dominant theme of reducing the use of plastics has also been latched onto by pharma. Boehringer Ingelheim recently outlined that their popular inhaler device, Respimat ­– used for delivering asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease medications – will now be available as a reusable inhaler that can be used with up to six cartridges. This could potentially lead to a 71% reduction in the product’s carbon footprint, while still retaining the same quality. This is just one example of how pharma can continue to support patients while maintaining sales, at the same time as helping organisations such as the NHS to meet targets of reducing plastic waste.


Digital channels are constantly evolving the way pharma companies are communicating to their customers. The traditional model of a sales rep talking through a hard-copy sales aid has almost been consigned to history. The move to a more sophisticated ‘e-detail aid’, delivered either in person or virtually, is now viewed as the norm. This reduces the waste of materials, as well as the carbon emissions associated with rep travel. Large annual conferences are now a showcase for companies to demonstrate innovative tools to promote their drugs and disease information. And virtual reality headsets and interactive video screens arguably provide a more engaging and sustained learning experience.

While the practical means of marketing are becoming more standardised across the industry, pharma brands will gain increased traction by conveying a positive image of corporate sustainability. Creating efficiencies and cost savings in other steps of the process should lead to more competitive pricing models, helping healthcare organisations to achieve their goals across sustainable health outcomes.

The companies who are most successful in their drive towards all-round sustainability will be able to leverage an authentic narrative, appeal more strongly to their customers and, ultimately, gain the upper hand. Perhaps life in the backroom, rather than at the back-post with my new football boots, can prove to be exciting in ways I didn’t imagine all those years ago.