Bt: Charlie Fletcher
As climate danger becomes increasingly viewed as a medical emergency, making healthcare more sustainable will only become more of a priority. Fortunately, the advancements of modern technology and community-based care stand to make a difference.
Making healthcare more sustainable will require addressing the problem of medical waste, implementing green solutions, and building powerful coalitions against pollution. But first, understand the impact of medical waste on the globe.
The Huge Problem with Medical Waste
Medical waste is a huge problem. We tend to favor single-use items for the sake of hygiene and safety but the trade-off is an abundance of garbage that ends up in landfills. Mass production of these devices adds to the already high carbon output of the industry. Meanwhile, disposable items don’t even necessarily equate to safer practices.
Of course, certain medical waste will be impossible and unsafe to store and recycle. But this hazardous waste only represents 15% of all medical trash, according to a BBC report. The rest is not unlike the garbage you or I generate in our homes and offices.
This non-hazardous waste is where progress can be made on the front of making healthcare more sustainable. And achieving this progress soon will be vital to the welfare of many communities the world over, as an overabundance of pollutants creates all kinds of climate challenges.
- Contamination of drinking, surface, and groundwater
- Release of toxic chemicals into the air, especially through incineration
- Risk of injury and infection for people and wildlife
These impacts will only get worse the more hospitals practice unsustainable use and disposal of medical instruments. Right now, high-income countries generate as much as 0.5 kg of waste per hospital bed per day. But making a sustainable change can create measurable benefits for care providers right away.
Take this example of Canadian neurosurgeons that cut costs by $750,000 just by reducing the use of disposables by 30%. These savings proves that sustainable healthcare is better for care providers and patients alike. To get there, however, the healthcare industry needs to make some changes to its processes.
How to Make Healthcare More Sustainable
Fortunately, the tools and tricks of the day make healthcare sustainability more achievable than ever before. We have intricate digital networks that can connect patients to providers remotely, artificial intelligence for scanning and sorting information, and a world full of professionals committed to enhanced sustainability.
With support tools and strategies like the following, care providers can implement broader sustainability practices that support environments, economies, and people:
1. Make sustainability a goal of all healthcare facilities.
The first thing any healthcare facility should do during a green transition is to prioritize sustainability as a core value of the organization and facility operations. Being intentional about sustainability in this way helps ensure that an organization considers it with every decision.
But to successfully implement green policy, practices need the business acumen necessary to balance sustainability with administrative functions. Professionals with a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree — especially those with sustainability experience — can help facilities pivot successfully towards more resource-efficient practices such as telehealth while keeping costs low.
2. Promote telehealth services.
Promoting the use of telehealth is a great method on its own for making healthcare more sustainable. Obviously, not every healthcare procedure will be possible over video conferencing tools, but already these tools have made it possible for patients to speak with a therapist or even have a medical condition diagnosed.
Not only is telehealth more sustainable because it makes healthcare more accessible to all those that need it but telehealth can also serve to reduce carbon emissions that would otherwise be created by traveling patients. One study found that during the telehealth boom in 2020, the carbon intensity of outpatient visits fell by half.
3. Invest in clean technology.
A large portion of medical waste is created through lab work and test kits. Pre-packaged, single-use tools can be convenient when working in a lab, but these resources are not sustainable. Instead, care providers can support sustainability by investing in clean technology.
There are many different ways providers might go about this. A sustainable investment might mean a switch to a power grid maintained by renewables, a transition to fully paperless systems, or even a lab-on-a-chip (LOC) for various healthcare processes. The LOC market is taking off because of its role in resource conservation, usability, and cost-efficiency.
4. Adopt recycling procedures wherever possible.
The future of healthcare will consist of innovative products to combat aging and improve the quality of life, but this will also likely mean more packaging and resource consumption. To support a sustainable future of care, we need the ability to recycle without putting humans at greater hazard risk. AI and robotics can provide an answer.
Clean technology can include systems that assist in organizing and preparing waste for recycling, such as the AI developed by SFU Mechatronics Systems engineers. Healthcare facilities should not hesitate to adopt recycling tools and procedures like these wherever possible as they look for methods to reduce waste.
5. Partner with sustainable organizations.
Last but not least, making healthcare more sustainable will come down to engaging healthcare providers, suppliers, and adjacent companies in powerful coalitions dedicated to sustainability. This means everything from supply chains to insurance companies working together for the good of the planet and its people. By partnering with sustainable organizations, healthcare facilities can make a bigger difference in their environmental impact.
These are just a few of the many ways we can build a more sustainable healthcare industry that adequately and equitably supports people and the environment. Technology is advancing rapidly, and with it, advances you might see in your lifetime include incredible innovations in green practices. From an AI that can sort and prepare medical waste for recycling to resource-friendly telehealth services, the future of healthcare is greener.
Support sustainability by promoting these green practices in your healthcare facilities.
Charlie Fletcher is a freelance writer with a background in sociology, and a specific interest in sustainability practices, and how pollution affects certain groups of people.