Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from hospitals, one pair of surgical scissors at a time

June 21, 2024
Business Affairs
Dan Vukelich
By Dan Vukelich

Most people who work outside of hospitals are shocked to learn that commonly used medical devices, sometimes costing thousands of dollars, and some containing over 35% metals (including gold, copper, and platinum), are transported from their places of manufacture, often outside of the US, used just once, and thrown out. These products include electrophysiology catheters, harmonic shears, and laparoscopic dissectors.

Yes, some hospitals are literally using a product with gold in it and throwing it out.

Surgical procedures generate an incredible amount of waste, often from medical devices labelled for single-use by their manufacturer. Seeing the waste from just one medical procedure is enough to make anyone sick. A recent peer reviewed article, published life cycle assessment (LCA) of five commonly used single-use surgical items found that 68% of CO2 emissions from the U.K.’s National Health Service come from items labelled for single-use.

In the U.S., we know that emissions from what researchers label “Scope 3,” those emissions coming from products brought into t hospitals, create a whopping 82% of greenhouse gas emissions. This puts the finger on the pulse of a shocking problem: the health sector, if taken collectively, would be the 5th worst polluting nation on the planet.

Tackling the problem of CO2 emissions from hospitals is a daunting task. Starting with lights that shut off automatically when not in use is a common place to start. But this focuses on a hospital’s scope 1 or scope 2 emissions – a great start, but the majority of emissions are coming from the supply chain, where emissions are notoriously hard area for hospitals to track.

Over 20 years ago, Congress and the Food and Drug Administration created a pathway to regulate commercial reprocessing companies, resulting in reprocessed single-use devices that are as safe and effective as original devices. Over 300 types of single-use devices (SUDs) have been reviewed by FDA and are green lighted for reprocessing. Later the EU began issuing CE marks for reprocessed (often, “remanufactured” in European markets) single-use devices. Today, over 9,500 hospitals, including most U.S. military hospitals and all US News & World Report “Top hospitals” use at least some reprocessed devices.

And for good reason. For each device used, the hospital saves 30% to 50% in cost. And eight peer reviewed life cycle assessments find that the reprocessed version reduces CO2 by on average 44% compared to using a virgin device each time. The studies are listed on the last page of our explanation for how our new CO2 calculator for works.

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