Hospitals Going Green: Reducing Waste and Clearing the Air

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U.S. Hospitals throw away about four billion pounds of trash each year, making them the second-largest waste producers after the food industry. An analysis by researchers at Johns Hopkins, published in the March issue of the journal Academic Medicine, recommends a wider adoption of recycling medical equipment to save hundreds of millions of dollars each year, in addition to protecting the environment.

“No one really thinks of good hospitals as massive waste producers, but they are,” says lead author Martin Makary, M.D., M.P.H., a surgeon and associate professor of public health at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “There are many things hospitals can do to decrease waste and save money that they are not currently doing.”

Hospitals regularly dispose of items such as surgical gowns, towels, and blood-oxygen meters, compression sleeves, and other surgical devices after one use. Selecting appropriate devices for reprocessing could decrease needless waste. In addition, recycled devices can cost about half as much as new equipment.

The thought of having an instrument used during surgery that was used on someone else may make some squeamish, however the proper sterilization, recalibration and testing of reused equipment, including laparoscopic ports and durable cutting tools, is safe. A recent report from the US Government Accountability Office concluded that reprocessed devices, when handled properly, do not present an increased health risk over new devices. The reprocessing industry has been regulated by the FDA since 2000 and there have been no reports of patient safety concerns.

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However, even if reprocessing used equipment doesn’t seem feasible, hospitals can save up to a billion dollars by reprocessing items that have never been used during surgery, but were unpackaged in preparation for a procedure. Currently, these must be also be thrown away as they may have been inadvertently contaminated.

Currently, only about 25% of hospitals across the country use at least one type of reprocessed medical device, but the number is growing. Banner Health in Phoenix, for example, has saved nearly $1.5 million from reprocessing operating room supplies.

In addition to reprocessing, three US hospitals are taking “green” a step further and signing energy contracts that will produce up to 10% clean energy. This will avoid about 11,829 metric tons of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere, the equivalent of taking over 2,000 cars off the road.

The program is called “Practice Greenhealth’s Clean Energy Solutions”, and was established by Health Care Without Harm to help the US health care sector, which spends about $6.5 billion each year on energy, to switch to cleaner, renewable energy sources.

"Energy is a critical area to address for climate change, because hospitals are the second most energy intensive buildings in the country," said Nick DeDominicis, Vice President of Clean Energy Solutions at Practice Greenhealth. "These benefits of using clean energy are much more than cost savings -- in fact, the benefits to public health from reduced greenhouse gasses are directly related to the reduction in fossil fuel use, and can be quantified."

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