Even before COVID-19, hospitals were (surprisingly) a major driver of greenhouse gas emissions. More patients in hospitals just made matters worse.
Though healthcare professionals likely engage in some sustainable behaviour at home – recycling, for example – in the world of healthcare, many medical devices are only used once then, due to contamination fears, are thrown away. Post-pandemic, it’s time to push the healthcare sector to recycle in the workplace.
Some healthcare organisations are starting to fight back against this waste. The Association of Medical Device Reprocessors (AMDR) is one such organisation focused on reprocessing used medical equipment for environmental benefit, with Daniel J. Vukelich, Esq., President and CEO of AMDR, on a mission to reprocess used medical devices.
“We collect, decontaminate, clean, repair, functionally test, disinfect, sterilise (when required), package and return, among other steps, select ‘single-use’ devices to a majority of US hospitals,” explains Vukelich. “By reprocessing with FDA-regulated vendors, hospitals reduce cost, reduce waste and emissions, and build resilience into the supply chain by extending the life of these medical devices.”
Sustainable solutions post-pandemic
The pandemic has impacted every industry, but healthcare has, of course, borne the brunt of it. Despite the obvious negativities, in one sense, the pandemic has been beneficial in that it brought some existing long-term problems to the fore.
“COVID-19 exposed the vulnerabilities of the linear production model, or ‘take, make and then waste’ supply chain system we’ve embraced – which itself is a driver of greenhouse gas emissions,” says Vukelich. “This model creates waste, inefficiency and vulnerability, because after one use, we toss these products.”
This is why the healthcare sector is one of the largest drivers of greenhouse gas emissions in the overall economy. But by reusing materials – through FDA-regulated practices like the reprocessing of certain, single-use devices – Vukelich believes that the sector can keep products closer to home and reuse them. Global shipping would be dramatically reduced, resulting in emissions that are roughly halved.
“Reusable or reprocessable products are preferable to disposable products. Demands made by healthcare professionals, in terms of the medical devices and supplies they use, will bend the larger industry to providing more financially and environmentally responsible options,” he says.
Over 80% of greenhouse gas emissions from hospitals come from the supply chain, known as Scope 3 emissions. For Vukelich, that’s where the focus should be.
The healthcare sector is one of the largest contributors of greenhouse gases.
“It’s the only sector where the employees have pledged a commitment to ‘do no harm’, yet have wasteful practices at hospitals that do,” says Vukelich. “Infection control practices, in part, led to a reliance on disposable equipment to do no harm to the patient in front of us. But the mountains of trash our disposable culture generates creates an environmental nightmare of a problem, and it also causes adverse impacts on health.”
The global supply chain required to create all of these disposable devices generates enormous greenhouse gas emissions, raising temperatures and causing adverse health outcomes associated with increased floods, fires, droughts and other related weather patterns. But burning all this disposable trash also pollutes the air with toxins known to give people asthma and cancer – so, what’s the answer?
“We need to do no harm by our greater patient populations by not contributing to global warming and creating adverse health outcomes associated with burning medical waste,” says Vukelich.
Right to Repair and the circular economy
The issue of Right to Repair relates to extending the value of existing products by giving consumers the right to repair (or reprocess) products, without interference by the original manufacturer. Obviously, this means that those who make and trade products lose out on selling new items. As such, some manufacturers have worked hard to prevent customers from repairing their products. Vukelich believes that hospitals should be viewed as consumers of health products and therefore have a right to repair their medical devices when they break or have them repurposed.
“Hospitals own the products. They deserve to have the right to repair them,” he says. Reprocessing offers up a safe, regulated means to extend the lifespan of existing assets. AMDR is aligned with the fundamental interests of the Right to Repair movement.”
AMDR is also interested in efforts used by manufacturers to artificially limit the lifespan of products.
“We call it ‘forced obsolescence’. Chipping a device to turn off after one use just drives up the cost of care, creates waste, emissions and makes us more vulnerable to device shortages,” says Vukelich. “We need to stop this behaviour, instead rewarding companies that promote reusing and reprocessing. The healthcare sector should not do business with companies that employ such efforts to bolster sales.”
Vukelich sees single-use device reprocessing as the best example of a circular economy business model in motion in healthcare.
“We are a long-standing, regulated, and proven business model, and we have the data to show we decrease costs, increase supply chain reliability and, perhaps most importantly, we reduce waste and emissions,” he says. “We are keeping devices ‘closer to home’, meaning they are reprocessed here in America and we’re not reliant on foreign imports. Recovery of used medical devices for use in the manufacturing of new devices is what we do, but it’s the future for MedTech and other industries.”
At AMDR, the company is standing against the culture of throwing away medical devices with microchips, rare earth metals or even durable plastics and metals.
“It is environmentally and financially unsustainable,” Vukelich says. “These materials need to be reused, reprocessed and remanufactured, and, when they can no longer be used to extend product life, they should be recycled and put into the manufacture of new medical devices and healthcare products.”
In 2023, AMDR wants the Biden Administration to help incentivise hospitals that reduce emissions by using strategies like reprocessing SUDs.
“These are big public policy asks, but they are the future,” he says. “We need to move healthcare away from rewarding medical devices and supply companies for volumes and start to reward them based on value.”
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