Environmental Sustainability: Healthcare and Medical Devices

Environmental Sustainability: Healthcare and Medical Devices
Environmental Sustainability: Healthcare and Medical Devices

Climate change is progressively beginning to dominate the global conversation, with current efforts at mitigating the impact of global warming falling significantly short. While we are all aware of the effects environmentally unfriendly practices can have on people’s health, only recently has there been more recognition of the role the healthcare sector plays in contributing to these practices.

The healthcare sector is a huge source of waste and greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, it is responsible for 4.4% of net emissions globally. [1] Some of this is generated directly from healthcare facilities, but more than 70% of healthcare emissions are generated in the supply chain, including the manufacture and disposal of medical devices and pharmaceuticals.

When looking across the supply chain and direct provision of care, more than half of all emissions are derived from energy utilisation (e.g., electricity and gas use).

Waste is another contributor. Hospitals in the US alone produce approximately 5 million tons of waste every year [2], and even where recycling or reprocessing programs are in place, there are many barriers that mean eligible waste is still not being disposed of sustainably.


Reusable vs. disposable devices

Disposable and single-use devices (SUDs) have become more popular with efforts to reduce hospital-acquired infections (HAIs) and the growth of value-based healthcare, despite limited evidence to suggest SUDs reduce infections. [3]

Although these devices and their components make up around 90% of all waste derived from medical devices, [4] environmental arguments for and against the use of disposable devices are not that simple.

Disposable devices produce huge amounts of waste and significantly contribute to the depletion of natural resources and the release of harmful emissions. [3]

However, studies have shown that high levels of energy consumption from sterilisation can result in reusable devices with a higher carbon footprint than their disposable equivalent [5] [6], and certain sterilisation substances can be damaging to the environment themselves, requiring specialised disposal. [4]


How important is it to address sustainability?

At IDR Medical, we regularly speak to healthcare workers and financial stakeholders about the impact of sustainability on their purchase decisions as part of healthcare and pharmaceutical market research.

While some facilities do consider this very important, for most, concerns surrounding infection prevention and clinical outcomes are the deciding factor.

However, sufficiently sustainable options that also adequately meet clinical needs are in short supply, and with sustainability an increasingly important topic across all sectors, there is a growing space for medical devices that can meet both demands.


Does Corporate Social Responsibility Matter?


By working on sustainability initiatives now, medical device manufacturers could put themselves in a good position to protect future sales with a competitive advantage, improve their brand appeal and meet corporate social responsibilities, as well as benefit from long-term cost savings.


How can medical device manufacturers address sustainability?

Below we have detailed three areas where vendors can be leaders in the transition to more sustainable healthcare:

1. More sustainable manufacturing processes and medical devices

The most obvious way for vendors to address sustainability is within their production lines, distribution channels, and the products themselves.

While this is easier said than done (given the stringent regulations in place for medical devices and the need for products to be commercially viable), there are several approaches manufacturers could investigate to internally reduce their carbon footprint:

investigate to internally reduce their carbon footprint

2. Partner with healthcare facilities and health systems to support the introduction of sustainable technology and workflows

Many facilities are introducing environmentally-friendly measures to reduce their energy consumption and carbon footprint. Some organisations are in a good position to manage this themselves, however, many facilities could benefit from external contractors.

Medical manufacturers are well placed to offer partnerships with such facilities to help them transition to more sustainable workflows.

In many cases, hospitals have been able to recognise large cost-savings by introducing these measures, and partnering with manufacturers could be seen as a good investment for long-term reward.


3. Invest in service models

Although disposable devices are not necessarily less environmentally friendly than reusable products, they do represent a market that cannot be sustained indefinitely. Moving towards the use of reusable/re-processable devices can be supported by the provision of products as a service rather than a capital expense.

The benefits for the vendor are primarily the opportunity to sell to more customers who will commit to long-term contracts. It also ensures a stable and predictable source of income and a competitive advantage over other vendors. This model nicely complements the strategies outlined in point number two.

As conversations around sustainability become more significant in the healthcare sphere, partnering with vendors who can offer truly sustainable products will become more important. As such, engaging with stakeholders heavily involved in sustainability to understand how they expect the needs and decision-making processes of health systems to evolve, is crucial.

Market research agencies with expertise in the medical sector, such as IDR Medical, are very well suited to advising medical manufacturers in selecting the best markets, respondents, and methodologies for research based on your interests, products, and capabilities.



[1] Health Care Without Harm, “Health Care’s Climate Footprint,” 2019.
[2] K. Budd, “Hospitals race to save patients — and the planet,” AAMC, 2019. [Online]. Available: https://www.aamc.org/news-insights/hospitals-race-save-patients-and-planet. [Accessed July 2021].
[3] H. H. A. K. S. A. M. B. M. J. E. L. H. F. M. K. S. C. T. S. Y. R. L. J. D. S. Andrea J. MacNeill, “Transforming The Medical Device Industry: Road Map To A Circular Economy,” Health Affairs, vol. 39, no. 12, 2020.
[4] G. I’ons, “From Design to Disposal: Achieving Sustainability in Medical Devices,” ONdrugDelivery, 2020. [Online]. Available: https://www.ondrugdelivery.com/from-design-to-disposal-achieving-sustainability-in-medical-devices/. [Accessed July 2021].
[5] D. S. T. L. S. M. F McGain, “Financial and environmental costs of reusable and single-use anaesthetic equipment,” British Journal of Anaesthesia, vol. 118, no. 6, pp. 862-869, 2017.
[6] F. C. D. N. J. B. C. H. Alexander Leiden, “Life cycle assessment of a disposable and a reusable surgery instrument set for spinal fusion surgeries,” Resources, Conservation, and Recycling, vol. 156, 2020.


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