Greener Healthcare: Strategies for Sustainable Surgical Units

Hospitals and medical practices produce a lot of waste. Indeed medical facilities generate more than 4 billion pounds of garbage every year, with the majority of the waste stemming from operating and delivery rooms. While healthcare facilities will always create a significant amount of garbage, eco-conscious medical providers can make several small adjustments to make their practices kinder to Mother Earth.

green surgery
Photo by Vidal Balielo Jr. from Pexels

Making a medical practice more sustainable means rethinking current waste disposal methods while still meeting governmental guidelines for the management of biohazardous waste. Also, creating a sustainable practice involves implementing common sense solutions to reduce non-hazardous waste by reusing materials. Consider the following when redesigning medical practices to make them more eco-friendly.

Cutting Back on Single-Use Devices

Single-use devices (SUDs) make up a sizable percentage of many medical facilities’ waste. Yet facilities can recycle many SUDs, saving the planet while at the same time saving the practice a significant sum of money. For example, the San Diego branch of Kaiser Permanente switched to recycling SUDs and in doing so saved approximately $300,000 in just one year.

Also, hospitals and other surgical facilities can significantly reduce waste by eliminating unnecessary items from their surgical kits. Typically, surgeons simply grab a standard kit when heading into the operating room. Many of the supplies in ordinary kits, such as certain syringes and plastic vomit basins go unused but get discarded.

Medical professionals should evaluate their surgical kits and determine which items most often go unused. Once the team has created a list of unnecessary things, they should contact the manufacturer of their surgical kits and ask them to remove the superfluous devices. For example, the same Kaiser Permanente facility reduced the number of items in their surgical kits from 40 down to 27.

Going Green, Seeing Red

Healthcare facilities must dispose of biohazardous waste in full compliance with FDA guidelines lest they lose their license. However, in many facilities medical professionals casually toss any item that touches a patient into the red biohazard bag without considering whether or not the items truly pose a risk. Also, some facilities fail to provide a separate disposal bin in patient rooms, meaning everything ends up in the biohazard bag. This creates an enormous amount of excess waste.

To cut down on waste, medical facilities should provide a large garbage bin and a smaller biohazard disposal container. All staff should receive training on what materials present actual biohazards and which materials require no special handling.

Switching to Sustainable Supplies

Another measure medical facilities can take involves switching to more sustainable supplies. Furthermore, facilities can avoid using medical devices for patients who may benefit from a less intensive course of care. For example, facilities can avoid using plastic casts on minor injuries, such as a broken pinky toe which can heal just as quickly when simply splinted or taped to a neighboring digit.

Some injuries do require the patient to wear a cast. Health facility managers can replace traditional non-biodegradable plastic casts with biodegradable ones. One medical supply house recently developed a new biodegradable cast material made primarily of wood chips. As green technology advances, facilities should soon have any number of more sustainable supplies to stock their practices.

Reducing Energy Waste

In addition to physical waste which often ends up in landfills, medical facilities use a tremendous amount of electricity. Hospitals, in particular, utilize an enormous amount of electricity by keeping lights on around the clock.

Many experts agree that investing in energy-efficient power can save anywhere from 25 to 45 percent off their energy bills, leaving hospitals with more in their coffers to pay for additional staffing or other needs. Also, facilities switching to green energy can take advantage of the tax credit for clean energy available under current federal law, resulting in even more significant savings.

Additional Green Measures

Medical facilities have a few more options for making their practices more sustainable. One additional measure facilities may implement involves switching from chemical means of sterilization to steam-based sterilization. Steam sterilization releases no toxins the way chemical sterilization does.

Likewise, facilities can eschew the traditional paper patient gowns and bibs and instead simply use washable cloth materials. Additionally, medical facilities can switch from paper billing to online bill pay and make medical records accessible electronically to reduce the need for paper while saving money.

Finally, a significant number of hospitals and medical facilities fail to offer recycling bins in waiting areas and patient rooms. Providing recycling bins where patients and visitors can dispose of soda cans and plastic bottles available in hospital vending machines cuts down on landfill fodder.

Many medical professionals mistakenly believe switching to more sustainable practices remains impossible without impacting patient safety. To overcome this mindset, practitioners should open their eyes and take a good look at measures they can take to save the planet while also saving money. By implementing changes like the ones listed above, medical professionals can ensure their facilities are as green as they can be.