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Impact of Medical Devices and Equipment on the Environment

calendar23 Jan, 2023
timeReading Time: 8 Minutes
Impact of Medical Devices

Climate change is increasingly becoming a huge part of global conversations, with the focus being placed on mitigating the effects of global warming and improving waste management[1]. There are various factors which contribute to the rising negative impacts on the environment caused due to environmentally unfriendly practices being carried out by humans. There has been an extreme focus on identifying these practices and finding solutions to lessen the blow to the environment caused by human actions. The healthcare sector contributes significantly to environmentally non-friendly patterns, which are negatively affecting the environment. In this blog, we will discuss the impact of medical devices and equipment on the environment

The healthcare sector produces enormous amounts of waste of various kinds. It is also responsible for 4.4% of net greenhouse gas emissions globally. Some of these emissions come directly from different healthcare facilities. Still, most of it emanates in the supply chain, starting from the manufacture to the disposal of pharmaceuticals and medical devices. The waste generated from these healthcare facilities is another significant contributor to the negative impact being caused on the environment. It has been reported that developed countries produce 5,000,000 tonnes of waste annually, even in places where there are reprocessing or recycling programs set in place because eligible trash needs to be sustainably disposed of. It is imperative for the healthcare sector to adopt sustainable practices to reduce the adverse impact of medical devices caused on the environment.

The medical device industry has been extremely slow in shifting to such sustainable practices due to the heavy regulations faced by it. Due to the nature of the products, the standards pertaining to quality and risk management are often uncompromising because changes cannot be made by putting the health of the population at risk. Despite the many challenges faced by the industry, the field of medical devices could do a lot more to become more environmentally sustainable. Even though the medical device industry faces more restrictions and regulations as compared to others, medical device enterprises and the healthcare industry overall should strive to be environmentally friendly whenever possible, as climate change directly affects human health, which can further put even more pressure on the healthcare industry.

Most hospitals and healthcare facilities are the most energy intensive. If such hospitals and facilities moved towards using renewable energy, they could make a considerable impact of medical devices on reducing the detrimental effect of the healthcare sector on the environment. Moreover, the use of digital health can also help companies meet the goals of innovation to sustainability. Digital health tools allow healthcare professionals to provide quality healthcare while minimizing resources and also maximizing value. Digital health tools like telehealth can help avoid travel related to healthcare the reducing CO2 emissions.

There are a plethora of ways in which medical device corporates can improve practices to become more environmentally sustainable. The very first area they can focus on is the introduction of sustainable disposal of waste, as healthcare facilities generally generate a considerable amount of waste due to disposable devices and other equipment. The problem of waste generation and lack of sustainable disposal has been exasperated exponentially due to the pandemic, which saw an increase in the use of single-use medical devices and equipment. Single-use medical devices and equipment are increasingly being preferred even during the pre-pandemic times to avoid the risk of patients to patient infections and cross-contamination.

Reusable and Single-use Devices – Impact of Medical Devices

As mentioned above, single-use devices and disposable devices have attained popularity in order to avoid hospital-acquired infections while also pushing for value-based healthcare, even though there is limited evidence to show that single-use or disposable devices reduce any infections. Many of these single-use and disposable devices contribute to almost 90% of the waves generated from the impact of medical devices, and they contribute significantly to the release of harmful emissions and depletion of natural resources. However, it is not a sound argument wholly let go of the devices. The argument pertaining to the sterilization of reusable instruments it’s not entirely helpful as many studies have showcased that energy consumption is often high, and this can cause reusable devices to leave a higher carbon footprint than disposable or single-use counterparts. Furthermore, it has also been found that the sterilization process itself can be damaging to the environment, which shall further require specialized disposal themselves.

Even though there is a need for more options which can make the life cycle of medical devices right from manufacturing to the disposal become sustainable while also meeting the required clinical conditions, there is a growing requirement to find a balance which addresses both needs.

Covid-19 and The Environment – Impact of Medical Devices

While the world is still reeling from the effects of COVID-19, the impact and it has caused on the environment is readily being studied by experts. Covid-19 saw an increased use of single-use masks, gloves and also use of various cleaning compounds, which led to antimicrobial resistance by the wastewater treatment system. Many reasons for the greenhouse gas emissions are the rising use of medical devices, which are single-use and are often disposed of either in landfills or through incineration. This causes not only greenhouse gas emissions but also causes damage to the air, soil, water and also the biodiversity and subsequently contributes to climate change.

Single Use Gloves and Face Masks

Single-use gloves and face masks were the common causes of pollution as COVID-19 hit the world. These gloves and face masks contributed significantly to the plastic pollution in the environment due to improper disposal in landfills or just dumping it randomly in the environment. They often find their way into the marine or freshwater system, where they end up becoming the primary reason for microplastic particles as they degrade and often form smaller fragments of plastic.

The COVID-19 pandemic saw the production of 65 billion gloves and 129 billion face masks which were used globally every month. These disposable yet inexpensive face masks and gloves were readily available to the public, which aided in reducing contamination and further transmission creating physical barriers. The improper disposal of these masks and gloves can have negative consequences like reduction in the water quality, increase in land, water and air pollution and use of landfills while also lowering the aesthetic value. There was also a significant increase in the production of waste in major cities of the world.

The pandemic also saw a significant increase in the production and use of disposable or single-use personal protective equipment or medical PPE, which was used by healthcare workers for their protection. Improper disposal of these PPEs often leads to them being accumulated in landfills and eventually in the environment. There are various detrimental impacts of waste products like this, like damage to the ecosystem, pollution and the possibility of people coming in contact with used PPE, which may be contaminated.

Prior research has also shown that large amounts of plastic waste which are used often end up in the marine ecosystem from land pollution, mainly through the coastal population and landfills. It clearly has a highly detrimental impact on various types of marine life and coral reefs, like endangered animals ingesting plastic waste and dying or chemicals from such plastic waste being flushed into water bodies and causing disruption in chemical communication.

Sanitization

Leading national institutions and national organizations have developed and implemented policies which are aimed at slowing down the spread of COVID-19 with a view to not overwhelm the medical infrastructure. Phrases like “flattening the curve” or “slowing the spread” became extremely common, and they often referred to the visual curve pertaining to the temporal onset of the COVID-19 spread. It also coincides with the mandates that encourage social distancing and regular sanitization of commonly touched surfaces and hands.

While these frequent disinfections and sanitization might be successful in tackling the spread of COVID-19, but it has detrimental impacts on the microbiome. Regular exposure to prescribed antibiotics or surface biocides often leaves mutant strains of bacteria behind that can easily survive the exposure and continue reproduction. These bacterial strains may also help facilitate horizontal gene transfer of elements that are mobile, genetic and antibiotic resistant, like plasmids, between genomes, which results in antimicrobial resistance of additional species.

The microbial community is essential to many ecosystem functions on which humanity relies. There are many ways in which antimicrobials can enter the environment. Some of the sources for such entry of antimicrobials into the environment include land runoff, livestock manure, hospital wastewater, municipal wastewater, and landfill leachate, among other things. The effect of over-prescribing antimicrobials to COVID-19 patients and overuse by the general public shall be evident in wastewater treatment plants. This is because the techniques for activated sludge treatment used currently are not able to effectively eliminate the antimicrobial biocides, which often leads to the accumulation of these biocides. Such accumulation leads to consequent disruption of various microbial species which are native to the ecosystem, remediation efforts and biogeochemical cycling.

How Can Medical Device Manufacturers Become More Sustainable? – Impact of Medical Devices

Sustainability in the medical sphere is becoming is rapidly becoming a significant point of consideration. It is imperative for manufacturers to look for sustainable methods for the production processes and also engage with stakeholders who are involved in sustainability to delve deeply into how the healthcare system can be made more sustainable. Moreover, healthcare facilities should consider partnering with manufacturers that focus on providing sustainable products.

The prevalent view is that medical device manufacturers are not doing enough welcomes to become more environmentally sustainable; however, there are some companies that are adopting different methods to try and reduce their CO2 emissions. For instance, Philips very recently introduced an EcoDesign program which aims at reducing the environmental impact cost due to the innovation process and the design stage. It also aims to use fewer resources and improve the energy efficiency of its products while also using products which are recyclable, avoiding using substances which are hazardous to the environment and making packaging which can be easily reused and recycled.

Below mentioned are some ways in which medical device manufacturers can help in the transition to healthcare that is more sustainable:

  1. Having manufacturing processes for medical devices which are sustainable.

The best way for medical device manufacturers to address sustainability is to look within their production processes, channels of distribution and the product itself. Even though this can be difficult as there are many regulations pertaining to impact of medical devices that are often stringent. There are many approaches which manufacturers can look into and eventually adopt to subsequently reduce the carbon footprints generated by them internally. Some of the strategies which manufacturers can employ are as follows:

  • Optimizing the efficiency of resources used and the production process and utilizing renewable sources of energy.
  • Investing in developing reusable products which have long lasting and durable designs which can be effectively sterilized without requiring high levels of energy.
  • Looking for ways to make packaging recyclable and reduce the volume of packaging altogether. This can further help manufacturers reduce their energy consumption.
  • Finding ways to facilitate the reprocessing or recycling of products, the design of the medical device and also providing support to healthcare workers to engage with these.
  • Introducing efficient transportation for the raw materials or the product.
  • Switching to raw materials which are more sustainable.

2. Partnering with healthcare institutions and other welfare systems to facilitate the introduction of sustainable workflows and technology

There are many facilities which are increasingly introducing environment friendly practices with a view to reducing the consumption of energy and, eventually, their carbon footprint. Some organizations are adept at handling this transition themselves, but there are many organizations which also require the help of experts who are well versed in this particular area. Medical manufacturers are in an excellent position to help these organizations transition to a more sustainable way of operating their businesses. Studies have shown that many hospitals have been able to facilitate significant cost savings by introducing measures like these, and partnering with medical manufacturers often turns out to be a fruitful investment bearing rewards.

3. Investing in service models Even though there are no studies which show that disposable devices are less environmentally friendly than products which are reusable is representative of a market that cannot be sustained in the long run. Transitioning to the use of devices which can be reprocessed or reused can be facilitated by providing products not as a capital expense but as a service.

This can benefit manufacturers by helping them gain opportunities to reach out to more customers who shall eventually commit to long term projects. This shall also ensure a predictable but a stable source of income and help gain an advantage over other manufacturers in a competitive industry.

Conclusion

Climate change is increasingly becoming a huge part of global conversations, with the focus being placed on mitigating the effects of global warming and improving waste management. The healthcare sector contributes significantly to the bulk of non-friendly practices affecting the environment, which is negatively affecting the environment. Covid-19 saw an increased use of single use masks, gloves and also use of various cleaning compounds, which lead to antimicrobial resistance by the wastewater treatment system. The medical device industry has been extremely slow in shifting to such sustainable practices due to the heavy regulations faced by it. Due to the nature of the products, the standards pertaining to quality and risk management are often uncompromising because changes cannot be made by putting the health of the population at risk. Even though the medical device industry faces more restrictions and regulations as compared to others, medical device enterprises and the healthcare industry overall should strive to be environmentally friendly whenever possible, as climate change directly affects human health, which can further put even more pressure on the healthcare industry. Medical device manufacturers can become more sustainable by introducing strategies like having manufacturing processes for medical devices which are sustainable, partnering with healthcare institutions and other welfare systems to facilitate the introduction of sustainable workflows and technology, and investing in service models.

Read our Article:What Is The Importance Of A Medical Device Certificate In India?

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