In the media

Using technology to achieve sustainability ambitions in healthcare

By Eugene Canavan

The Journal of mHealth

01 May 2023

Decarbonising the healthcare industry is a pressing and complex challenge, but technology can be used to strive for more sustainable goals. By incorporating technology in the supply chain focusing on designing healthcare products and technology with sustainability in mind, and on supporting home treatments, the healthcare industry can reduce its carbon emissions significantly.

1. Decarbonising the supply chain

Healthcare provider supply chains have the biggest overall impact on healthcare services emissions, through the production, transport and disposal of products and services, medical devices and equipment. While healthcare systems do not control supply chain emissions directly, they can help decarbonise them by taking an end-to-end view of the value chain, making supplies an integrated part of sustainability efforts. The commercial relationships and agreements with the supply chain actors are key levers to drive sustainability ambitions in healthcare.

To improve their environmental and sustainability goals, care providers should invest in technology so that they can accurately capture supply chain data. Using supply chain data can help to understand issues, prioritise initiatives and enable improved decision making (including understanding the consequences of requesting changes to supply chains).

Making use of the digital twin – a virtual model of a physical object or process – is also going to become crucial in achieving more sustainable ambitions in healthcare. By combining the digital twin with supply chain data management, supply chains can be modelled in real-time. Virtual twins can thus help by allowing the healthcare industry to design, test and simulate new and more sustainable products and processes much faster and completely virtually, thus significantly speeding up time to market and reducing risk. Above all, the virtual twin will also support the shift to a more circular economy, where products are designed to enable repurposing and reuse whilst reducing waste from the product’s lifecycle.

2. Sustainable strategies

Minimising products’ negative environmental effects at the end of their lives by designing them for disassembly and recyclability will also become crucial to achieving sustainability ambitions in healthcare. Single-use products will always be needed due to the hazardous nature of healthcare waste and the need for infection control. However, the industry will need to reach a point where certain components of the products can be reduced, reused or recycled, particularly components that do not come into contact with the human body.

Hospitals that partner with medical device companies can also reprocess some of the single-use medical devices they typically discard. Cardinal Health, for example, developed a zero-waste operation in partnership with healthcare organisations to reprocess or recycle single-use devices. In 2017, they diverted more than 740 tons of used medical devices from landfills through these partnerships. Kaiser Permanente reportedly saves around $11 million per year by reprocessing certain single-use devices.

Some currently labelled single-use products can also have a much longer viable life cycle. Medical instruments such as trocars, blood pressure cuffs or disposable medical scissors can be retrieved by reprocessing companies who collect, sort, clean, disinfect, test, sterilise and return thousands of devices to medical facilities, which can also reduce costs in comparison to having to invest in new products. The reprocessed equipment gives medical facilities greater flexibility to manage their supply chain while being just as safe and efficient as the original products. Keeping medical products in use for as long as they are functional before disposing of them will therefore lessen the enormous amount of medical waste generated every day and drive a more circular economy. Developing certain technology can help in this by creating sorting processes that quickly identify which elements can be recycled or reprocessed.

3. Care at home and digital health

Increasing the use of digital tools, software, virtual assistance and wearables, will also maximise the value of technological healthcare while minimising resources. Wearables such as the Viscero ECG Vest created by the team of designers and engineers at PA Consulting, for example, allow for non-intrusive, non-invasive monitoring of the heart at home, without the constant aid of a healthcare professional. This gives people the ability to feel empowered to monitor their well-being daily with a user-friendly and preventative solution. With the help of wearables like the Viscero ECG Vest, patients will be able to receive the same quality of care from their homes, reducing the need to come into resource-intensive healthcare facilities for diagnosis and treatment. The shift from hospitalisation to homespitalisation will not only help in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from patient travel but also in reducing the number of resources used in medical facilities.

Because prevention is always preferable to cure, healthcare technology must now also focus on addressing one of the most urgent problems of our time: how to age better. Digital solutions, like at-home monitoring devices, can help by heading off health issues before they develop into more long-term diseases or conditions. By using monitoring technology such as health trackers or ECG vests, healthcare professionals will be able to build data from people at risk to detect signs of an emerging condition and will be able to provide treatment before the condition becomes more difficult to manage. Monitoring technology thus has the potential to reduce the healthcare cost burden and need for expensive medical procedures and resources later on in the patient’s journey.

4. True sustainability for the system and the patient

Implementing technology that reduces both the healthcare and patients’ carbon footprints will help to fight the climate crisis, improve industry sustainability, and enhance healthcare by improving the patient experience. However, in order to accelerate the transition to more sustainable healthcare and strive for Net Zero, healthcare technology (from wearables, to supply chain management technology) will need to be designed with a great understanding of both healthcare professionals and patients in mind, to develop sustainable solutions embedded effortlessly into people’s everyday lives.

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