Ways the Healthcare Industry Can Heal the Environment

Hospitals heal the sick. But in the process of doing so, they harm the environment. To treat diseases, they use a vast amount of natural resources, consume high levels of energy, and generate a ton of waste every single day. In fact, the healthcare sector emits 8% of the total greenhouse gases in the United States.

At the same time, hospitals command 18% of the country’s GDP. Hence, it’s highly critical for the healthcare industry to reduce their environmental impact, with their substantial leverage in the U.S. economy. Thankfully, many hospitals have started exploring sustainable alternatives for their wasteful practices, and more will follow. Healthcare facilities can join the shift by doing the following:

  1. Recycle Waste

Recycling is the most basic step to saving the environment. This starts at segregating waste. By simply labeling garbage cans, every staff and patient in the facility can help recycle more waste. However, there has to be enough awareness in the facility for waste segregation to succeed.

Hospitals use a different method than other industries in sorting waste. They use a “Red Bag,” which requires strict regulations that all hospitals are aware of on a local, state, and national scale. Materials in the red bag require special handling, as they have always been traditionally. Furthermore, instead of using labels such as “non-biodegradable” and “biodegradable,” hospitals color-code their bins. The yellow bin collects infectious waste, the brown one pharmaceutical and chemical waste, and the black one is for general waste.

The World Health Organization (WHO) also published guidelines on recycling medical waste. In hospitals, clinics, and other types of healthcare facilities, packaging materials can be recycled. These include paper and cardboard, glass, metal containers, and plastic wrappings.

  1. Go Paperless

The healthcare industry is one of the largest producers of paper waste. As such, most records traditionally written on paper have been digitalized. Many hospitals in the United States now use telehealth, a service in which patients can seek care through the phone. This allows healthcare providers to issue electronic billings instead of printing them out. In addition, electronic health records (EHR) have become widely used, replacing piles of paper bearing patient data. EHR brings plenty of advantages to both healthcare providers and patients, such as reducing paper waste and enhancing the security and privacy of patient data.

Paper prescriptions, another major driver of paper waste, have also been replaced by an ePrescribe system. Generally known as e-prescriptions, this software has been in common in the United States and Sweden for more than ten years. Australia is the next country to adopt this system, with the objective of making their hospitals completely paperless.

E-prescriptions are essential even if a hospital already uses EHR. That’s because EHR still makes healthcare providers print out a prescription. The patient will then receive the paper prescription and take it to the pharmacy for dispensing. The pharmacy will keep the paper prescription in their records for two years.

With e-prescriptions, that process will change. Doctors can use their software to write and transmit prescriptions as a “token” to their patients’ smartphones. This token contains a QR code and can be in the form of SMS or email.

Instead of submitting a piece of paper to the pharmacy, patients can just show their phones to be scanned, or they can forward the SMS or email message to the pharmacy. In turn, the pharmacy will import the code to their dispensing program, unlock the prescription, and give the medication to the patient. No paper is used at all in the process.

If the patient accidentally deletes the SMS or email message, they can simply request a re-issuance. It’s no different from requesting a replacement paper prescription.

  1. Reduce Disposables

Healthcare facilities also consume tons of disposables, such as paper towels, toilet paper, and patient care essentials, to name a few. Consider these sustainable alternatives to using disposables:

  • Use air dryers instead of paper towels in bathrooms.
  • Use cloth diapers for patients requiring regular or adult diapers, making sure it follows sanitary regulations.
  • Use bedpans, water pitchers, and other reusable items in patient rooms.
  • Replace disposable patient gowns, linens, and bed pads with washable types.
  • Check if certain personal care items can be recycled, ensuring that the facility is complying with infection control guidelines.
  • Switch to reusable medical instruments, as well as washable surgical and nursing gowns.
  • Reuse plastic fracture pans and graduated measuring containers.
  • Use washable dining ware; compost kitchen and food waste.

Small changes can make a big difference if they are implemented habitually. You may barely feel your contribution to earth-saving measures now. But in the long run, your efforts will pay off. Be transparent to your patients about your sustainable practices as well. The moment they walk into your facility, they should participate in the program. Your collective efforts can change the reality of the healthcare industry, making it an earth-saver instead of a major contributor of waste and greenhouse gases.