Ensuring the Health of the Planet: Is Your Practice Sustainable?

For medical providers in every corner of the healthcare industry, the primary mission is quality patient care. Especially in an emergency, all other considerations fall to the wayside, including sustainability. Yet, in the modern world, where the harmful effects of climate change can no longer be ignored, we must all do our part to ensure a sustainable future.

You may not be aware of the fact. Still, the healthcare industry is responsible for a massive chunk of the world’s carbon emissions, spewing two gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere on an annual basis. Roughly half of those emissions come from energy use. Medical facilities produce about 5 million tons of waste yearly, including everything from cafeteria trash to regulated medical waste.

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It’s clear that sustainability needs to be prioritized globally, and the time is ripe for the healthcare industry to lead the charge. To help bridge the gap between patient care and environmental stewardship, you must do your part and become more mindful about sustainability and the overall carbon footprint of your practice. Are there areas that need to be addressed, such as your facility’s power consumption or waste production? Where does telehealth fit into the overall picture of sustainability?

As you work to make your practice more sustainable, there are myriad factors to consider. Let’s take a look at the topics of medical waste, telehealth, community-based care, and how you can be more mindful of your carbon footprint for the health of the planet and every patient under your care.

Waste Considerations Within the Healthcare Industry

Interestingly, the COVID pandemic has served to increase global waste generation rather than decrease it. The global pandemic spawned the increased demand and widespread usage of single-use equipment within the healthcare industry, especially those made of plastic. From disposable gloves and protective aprons to surgical equipment and masks, these single-use items typically end up in landfills. And much like general plastic waste, discarded medical waste may ultimately find its way to the world’s natural spaces, including rivers, oceans, and other waterways.

The grim reality is that pandemic-related medical waste could effectively set the world back years in terms of sustainability. According to a February 2021 research article published in Heliyon, in fact, “data analysis does indicate that COVID-19 will reverse the momentum of the years-long global battle to reduce plastic waste pollution.” What’s more, the worldwide increase in waste production comes as more and more plastic recycling facilities are shutting their doors.

Thus, to avoid a potential long-term environmental impact, healthcare facilities of every size must actively seek out sustainable solutions in the realm of waste management. But as you look to reduce the carbon footprint of your medical practice, plastic waste is just the beginning. It would help to consider the environmental impact of paper medical records and in-person visits for routine checkups and testing. Fortunately, recent advancements in technology have made it easier than ever for medical facilities to trade in wasteful and bulky paper records for electronic medical records or EMRs. EMRs are also considered more secure than their pulp-based counterparts and less expensive to maintain alongside their environmental benefits.

blue and white desk globe on green grass field during daytime Photo by Guillaume de Germain on Unsplash

Innovations in Sustainability

Technology also allows medical facilities to make use of such innovations as telehealth, remote diagnostics, and more. Scientists and medical professionals are using advanced tech designed to streamline the laboratory process, such as micro-electric-mechanical systems (MEMs). These devices can rapidly analyze fluid samples on a pico-liter level and can be used to monitor the levels of certain compounds in a patient’s blood or urine. A Berkshire report indicates that MEMs played a “significant role” in sequencing the human genome. Minuscule in size, MEMs can help practices minimize the space required to perform medical procedures, reducing resource consumption.

And make no mistake: If your goal is to operate a sustainable practice over the long term, resource consumption is paramount. While hospitals may not entirely rely on renewable energy for their power needs, it may be the perfect choice for a smaller, independent practice or clinic. The right source of renewable energy is mainly dependent on your local climate and typical weather patterns. For example, suppose your medical practice is located in an area with abundant sunshine. In that case, you may be able to offset some or all of your facility’s energy output using a solar panel array.

Investing in renewable energy to power your medical practice also makes sense from an economic standpoint. The 476-kilowatt (kW) solar energy system at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital saves the facility an estimated $95,000 per year. Depending on the size of your renewable energy system, you may see similar cost savings in addition to a reduced carbon footprint. If roof space is a concern, there’s always your parking lot to consider. At CentraState Medical Center in New Jersey, massive solar carports generate about half of the hospital’s energy needs, reducing strain on the local electrical grid as well as the natural world.

The Return of the Community-Based Practice

By embracing sustainable tech like solar panels and MEMs, you can set your practice apart from the competition. Prioritizing sustainability may bring in a more extensive patient base of sustainably-minded patients, as well as attention from your peers and colleagues. And even as technological advancements can help steer your practice towards improved sustainability, you can achieve similar results by employing a team of professionals who share your passion for the environment.

As you work to build your sustainable healthcare center, whether from the ground up or while updating your business model, look for those individuals with a background that differs from your own. A medical professional with an MBA, for instance, may bring a fresh perspective to your project. Business acumen is a beneficial trait for those looking to branch out into the world of private practice. To ensure the continued success of your sustainably-minded, independent facility, it’s a good idea to have knowledgeable colleagues by your side.  

Key Takeaways

As we face an uncertain future wherein climate change and COVID-19 are part of daily life, the medical community must prioritize sustainability. Sustainable practice in 2021 uses the latest technology to cut costs and reduce waste while providing exceptional patient care. As a healthcare provider, you can do your part to improve public health, along with that of the Earth itself, by making sustainability a cornerstone of your business model, no matter the size of your practice or your medical niche.


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