The Future of Sustainability Reporting for the Healthcare Sector
By Cheryl Lee
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrust healthcare systems and the healthcare industry into the global spotlight in recent months, as governments raced to conduct mass testing and secure isolation facilities, while healthcare systems creaked under the strain of a dramatically increased patient load, exacerbated by the shortage of healthcare workers and equipment.
If there is one thing the pandemic has taught us, it is that healthcare systems must be resilient, especially in times of crisis. As summarised by the World Health Organisation (WHO), “For health systems to be resilient, they require quality health services that are delivered prior to, maintained during, and improved upon following an emergency.” WHO places the promotion of health and well-being, which includes creating resilient healthcare systems, at the centre of the 2030 agenda of the United Nations’ (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Health and well-being have clear links to each of the 17 SDGs:
Source: WHO, 2016
Public and private healthcare organisations play essential roles in building a resilient healthcare system. To effectively play their roles, healthcare organisations need to be clear on their corporate purpose, mission and strategy, and communicate these well to align internal and external stakeholders, who can then better support the organisation in the delivery of its mission and strategy. For publicly listed companies, this communication tends to take the form of an annual sustainability report, where the organisation discloses its strategy and activities undertaken that have created value (financial and non-financial) for stakeholders and wider society. While most organisations publish sustainability reports, many often fail to adequately reflect the company’s mission and strategy in the topics they report on. COVID-19 has heightened growing stakeholder and societal expectations that companies should be responsible corporate citizens; it is no longer simply beneficial but imperative that organisations re-examine their mission, strategy, and communications, taking into account all stakeholders’ interests. We looked at the sustainability reports of publicly listed healthcare companies in the region and identified key areas for improvement in their sustainability strategy and reporting:
Report on environmental topics like waste, water, biodiversity, energy and emissions. Climate change, coupled with the ease of travel, means that we can expect greater transmission of infectious diseases and more frequent pandemics. Clean environments reduce the incidence of pollution-related diseases that are highly preventable. It is time that healthcare organisations recognise the importance of environmental management and climate change adaptation and mitigation, and start addressing their impacts on the environment in reporting.
Ensure accessibility to healthcare. As headlines put it, “COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate.” The widespread and rapid growth of the pandemic shows that accessibility of healthcare is crucial, not just for the individual but for the greater good of communities, cities and countries. Healthcare companies have a responsibility to promote equitable access to basic healthcare and medicines, enabling sustainable development to be achieved for all.
Invest in innovation and technology. Innovation and technology are important drivers of change. Embracing technology is also one way healthcare systems can compensate for a shortage in healthcare workers, especially since this shortage is set to worsen in the coming years in developed countries due to ageing populations. COVID-19 has forced many healthcare organisations to explore new methods of providing healthcare – such as via teleconsultations and mobile apps. Even after the pandemic, many of these new innovation and technology-enabled changes will likely to be here to stay, and prove a transformative force for the industry in years to come.
“Health is an end-point that reflects the success of multiple other goals.” Dr Margaret Chan, WHO Director General 
Enhance alignment with the SDGs. As evidenced by the WHO, health promotion plays a major role in advancing the global agenda of sustainable development. Healthcare organisations should look to align their efforts beyond just Goal 3: Good Health and Wellbeing, because the achievement of all of the other 16 goals are contingent on global health. For example, prioritising health needs of the poor can help them break out of the poverty cycle (SDG 1); advocating for sexual and reproductive health literacy can empower women and girls (SDG 5); ensuring accessibility of health services and particularly primary care can help reduce inequality (SDG 10), and promoting low-carbon development creates cleaner and healthier environments (SDG 13).
Foster strong partnerships. With government healthcare spending continuing to rise globally, support from the private sector and voluntary welfare organisations is essential to create sustainable systems that meet the populations’ healthcare needs. SDG 17, Partnerships for the Goals, emphasises the need for public-private partnerships both within sectors and across sectors. Strong collaboration, knowledge-sharing and dissemination of best practices across different partners will help build resilient and sustainable healthcare systems.
Health is a fundamental right that cannot be achieved in isolation from sustainability. At the core, they share the same mission to improve human well-being, both now and in the future. By incorporating sustainability into their corporate mission and strategy, healthcare organisations stand to reap the benefits of the natural synergy between healthcare and sustainability while helping to build resilient healthcare systems, future-proofing their business and creating long-term value for all.
 WHO, http://www9.who.int/servicedeliverysafety/areas/qhc/resilient-health-systems/en/
 WHO 9th Global Conference on Health Promotion, 2016
 WHO 9th Global Conference on Health Promotion, 2016
 WHO Global Spending on Health: A World in Transition Report, 2019