Why Must We Focus on Sustainable Healthcare
Medical waste it is an inevitable byproduct of healthcare. However, waste produced by healthcare is a big problem to both people and planet. The spotlight has been placed on what healthcare systems can do to to reduce the impacts that hospital waste has on the environment, and sustainable healthcare has become an important topic of conversation.
Governments around the globe have declared a climate crisis and the need for healthcare systems to work towards Net Zero emissions has become critical. This is a worldwide issue as the AAMC found that globally 4.4% of all greenhouse gas emissions and over 5 million tonnes of waste come from hospitals1. The NHS creates 133,000 tonnes of plastic annually with only 5% of it being recovered2.
Many initiatives have been launched to tackle this issue. In October 2020, the NHS announced its For a Greener NHS campaign which aims to significantly reduce healthcare systems carbon footprint and the production of plastic waste – with the aim of becoming the first net zero healthcare system in the world. But more must be done on a worldwide scale to reduce the impact of plastic waste.
The pandemic has only further exacerbated the problem with a rise in single use PPE to combat the spread of infection.
The Extent of the Plastics Problem
Unlike refusing a straw at a restaurant, it’s difficult for patients to cut down on plastic. Single-use plastic is facing more scrutiny than it ever has, and the medical industry is an area where individual consumers have the least influence.
Practice Greenhealth estimates that 25% of the waste generated by a hospital is plastic. A study on a single hysterectomy found that the procedure can produce up to 20 pounds of waste, most of which is plastic3.
Practice Greenhealth looked at common single-use plastic items in operating rooms that had been successfully replaced by reusable items. Tools like surgical basins and sterilisation wraps could be reused and would reduce waste by several tonnes per year. Depending on where they cut back, hospitals could also save thousands of dollars a year, Practice Greenhealth says.
How To Reduce Single-Use Plastic
Hospitals use plastics in a variety of ways from disposable plastic syringes and prosthetics to surgical devices. When first introduced into hospitals, single-use plastics were an attractive option as it allowed for maintenance of a sterile environment and infected plastic material could be easily disposed of.
The most logical method of reducing medical plastics is to tackle the areas where it is easiest to reduce plastic waste.
Thermometry is one area where plastics could be significantly reduced. Temperature is a key diagnostic for patients, taken approximately every 4-6 hours on every patient in every hospital. There are a variety of medical-grade thermometers available in the marketplace. Yet, many hospitals still use contact thermometers such as tympanic and axilla, which require disposable single-use plastics.
TRITEMP™ is a medically graded non-contact thermometer, used in over 1000 locations globally which requires no consumables, making it a more sustainable option. The device doesn’t require the use of single-use plastic probe covers and therefore reduces the detrimental effects healthcare has on the environment.
A 900-bed hospital takes around 2-3 million temperature readings per year, that’s 2-3 million single-use probe covers to dispose of4. Reducing single use medical plastics is one way to take steps in the right direction, so healthcare systems can reduce the effect they have on the global climate crisis.
To limit infection spread, the probes on contact thermometers are clothed by a single-use plastic cover. This probe cover is replaced each time it is used, so vast amounts are used globally, given the sheer volume of temperatures taken in healthcare.
Single-use plastics used in thermometry have many drawbacks, firstly they harm the environment and increase Co2 emissions, but they are also an infection control risk, with potential for spreading infection from patient to patient.