Keeping Pace with Sustainability Guidelines

12/14/2021

Faced with the increasing burden of ever-changing regulations and guidelines, hospital organizations are reeling from a regulatory overload. In addition to the weight of backlogs and staff shortages caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s no surprise that the healthcare sector is struggling to stay afloat in a sea of guidelines and regulations. While healthcare providers attempt to navigate the complicated world of regulations and guidelines – sustainability regulations are at serious risk of being thwarted by rapidly moving climate change targets. With concerns about the fragile state of our climate growing and healthcare systems in the spotlight – what can the healthcare sector do to keep up with evolving regulations and guidelines? And, how can MedTech suppliers help healthcare organizations maintain momentum and overcome regulatory barriers?

Ear, Nose, Throat, General Surgery, Gastroenterology, Urology, Gynecology, Pulmonology
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The challenge to keep pace with sustainability guidelines in healthcare

A growing regulatory epidemic

As hospital organizations face their most significant challenges to date with COVID-19, further hurdles appear in the form of ever-evolving guidelines and regulations. An overwhelming range of assessments and reporting are required to prevent hospital organizations from facing hefty penalties and fines. With the healthcare sector already crippled by the recent pandemic, the need for a more effective way to manage regulatory compliance has never been more apparent.

With the healthcare sector being one of the largest greenhouse gas emitters 1 , the challenge to keep pace with sustainability guidelines and regulations has intensified considerably in recent times. Ensuring healthcare sustainability brings with it a unique and complex set of regulations and challenges that require careful consideration. Adhering to the complex and changing sustainability guidelines and regulations is often an intricate balancing act between doing what’s right for the environment and doing what’s right for the healthcare system.

Sustainability guidelines - the scale of the problem

Understanding the magnitude of healthcare’s climate footprint may provide some insight into the real scale of the problem hospital organizations face in navigating sustainability guidelines.

Unsurprisingly, the accumulation of plastic waste in the form of personal protective equipment (PPE) and medical devices has increased exponentially as a result of the pandemic and concerns regarding infectious disease contamination 2 . There are suggestions that the United States, for example, may have generated an entire year’s worth of medical waste in just two months 3 – contributing considerably more greenhouse gas emissions compared to the global aviation industry, for example. In addition to this, SUEZ reported a 50% increase in healthcare waste in France and a 30-50% increase in the Netherlands over a period of several weeks 4 .

Estimates of net emissions are startling - with 4.4% of global net emissions attributed to healthcare. Health Care Without Harm (HCWH), a non-profit network of European hospital organizations, estimates that if healthcare were a country, it would be the fifth-largest emitter on earth. In the absence of appropriate action, global healthcare emissions are expected to triple by 2050 compared to 2014, reaching an astounding six gigatons a year 5 . While healthcare-related greenhouse gas emissions vary considerably between countries, the HCWH report suggests that for Europe at least, greenhouse gas emissions have common origins 1 :

  • 17% from healthcare facilities and healthcare owned vehicles
  • 12% from energy sources such as heating, electricity, steam and cooling
  • 71% from the healthcare supply chain through the production, transport, and disposals of goods and services, principally pharmaceuticals, medical devices, food and agricultural products, hospital instruments, and equipment.

Evidently, there is an urgent need to tackle the growing carbon footprint of healthcare. In fact, the World Health Organization states that “An environmentally sustainable health system would improve, maintain or restore health, while minimizing negative impacts on the environment and leveraging opportunities to restore and improve it, to the benefit of the health and well-being of current and future generations.” 6

What are the current sustainability guidelines?

To help combat the ever-growing carbon footprint of healthcare, several countries within the European Union have collectively agreed to work towards complete decarbonization. The Paris agreement and the European Green Deal pledge to limit global warming to below 2 °C 7 , reduce emissions by at least 55% by 2030 compared to 1990, and make Europe the first carbon-neutral continent by 2050 8 .

Undoubtedly, attempting to keep up with sustainability guidelines and the associated complex goals and targets is a challenging task for the healthcare sector. But, where do hospital organizations start when it comes to chasing the moving sustainability target and how can they find the right support? The answer is to start with small and manageable changes that make substantial impact over time. Let’s take a look at a few examples and see where MedTech suppliers like Olympus may be able to help.

The goal of climate-neutral healthcare

Effective waste management in healthcare

The healthcare sector generates considerable amounts of emissions and waste due to the large consumption of energy and resources. The ever-increasing volume of disposable and pre-packaged medical devices is accelerating, particularly in western countries that tend to have greater healthcare-related expenditure. As surgical procedures outside of the operating room and home-based care have increased, so has the amount of waste generated in community healthcare settings, which poses additional problems when it comes to the management of waste.

Single-use medical devices are a necessity for certain procedures, however, limiting their use where possible could be one way to reduce waste from packaging and decrease the environmental impact caused by improperly managed landfills and ash from incinerators that are notoriously high in heavy metals. Olympus aims to help healthcare providers reduce and manage the waste-related carbon footprint more efficiently, by offering reusable medical devices, in addition to single-use. Internally, Olympus is committed to reaching the goal of Carbon neutrality by 2030 using effective and impactful reduction measures including enhanced packaging efficiency 9 .

Making procurement more sustainable

Procurement is the largest contributor to the healthcare-related carbon footprint. With around 15,000 hospitals, the European healthcare sector is a major procurer of goods and services that have an impact on carbon footprint at each stage of the life cycle. The goal of sustainable procurement is to minimize the environmental impact of purchasing decisions and that takes careful consideration and planning.

One way to improve the carbon footprint of the procurement process is to ensure that MedTech suppliers are thinking about their environmental responsibility too. Olympus is passionate about providing environmentally sound goods and services and has integrated green procurement to help safeguard hospital organizations 9 . As a MedTech supplier committed to environmental health, Olympus continuously strives to: improve environmental health and safety performance; comply with current laws and regulations; reduce environmental impact through all business activities; and ensure transparency and reliability in dispatch of information about environmental safety and health activities.

Efficient resource management in healthcare

Various factors contribute to the energy footprint of hospital organizations but two key actions can help to improve the use of energy: reduce unnecessary usage, as previously mentioned, and increase energy efficiency.

The best way for hospital organizations to improve energy and efficiency is through the proper maintenance of equipment in energy-intensive areas - such as the operating room. Regular maintenance not only ensures that the lifespan of equipment is extended, but reduces its carbon footprint.

Using a MedTech supplier, like Olympus, that provides regular service support, can help battle the ongoing energy efficiency crisis in healthcare and help hospital organizations meet their sustainability guidelines.

Summary

As the challenge to keep pace with sustainability guidelines hastens, hospital organizations face growing pressure to find new and innovative ways to reduce their carbon footprint.

In addition to implementing changes within hospital organizations that improve waste and resource management, utilizing partnerships with medical equipment providers helps to address the growing need for hospital organizations to act upon sustainability driven guidelines and regulations. That may be through the sustainability activities of medical technology suppliers or internal changes that help to increase efficiencies. With support strategies for the healthcare sector in place, hospital organizations can better cope with the demands of ever-evolving sustainability guidelines.

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