Hippocrates, the father of medicine, wrote in 400 B.C., "First, do no harm." These few words are a sacred covenant held by doctors to this day.
Fast-forward 23 centuries to 1969 when Congress created the Environmental Protection Agency. At its core is a fundamental belief that public and private interests must work together if man and nature are to co-exist in productive harmony for the benefit of generations to come.
Unfortunately, these dual doctrines of medical and environmental stewardship are only now becoming a focus for the healthcare industry.
According to the international organization Health Care Without Harm, hospitals generate more than 2 million tons of waste each year. That's more than 5,000 tons a day, or 200 tons per hour and nearly 8,000 pounds of medical waste every 60 seconds. In addition, the healthcare industry annually discards millions of fully functional medical devices after just one use. These statistics are alarming and concerning.
Hospitals for a Healthy Environment is a joint program of the American Hospital Association, the Environmental Protection Agency, Health Care Without Harm and the American Nurses Association. Its goal is to improve the environmental performance of our nation's healthcare industry.
Environmental stewardship is not only the right thing to do, but it also makes good business sense. The California Department of Health Services estimates that it costs $480 per ton or more to process medical waste, compared with $25 per ton for other solid wastes. That's money that could be put to better use in patient care. In a guidance document published in February, the DHS outlines medical waste reduction strategies hospitals in the state can implement to protect the community, improve the environment and produce substantial operational cost savings. They are:
- Eliminate solid wastes from the medical waste stream.
- Use lighter weight, high-density Bio-Elite red bags for medical waste storage, etc.
- Implement a recycling program for the blue plastic wrap used to cover sterilized operating instruments.
- Install reusable sharps containers.
- Use sharps containers manufactured with recycled plastic.
- Recycle single-use medical devices.
The full guidance document is posted on the DHS Web site at www.dhs.ca.gov/medicalwaste.
Resource stewardship is a "core value" at Catholic Healthcare West, a San Francisco-based chain of 41 acute-care facilities and more than 7,000 acute-care beds. The faith-based chain has put vendors on notice that disposable medical devices are not environmentally friendly, and it will give preference to more durable equipment that can be safely reprocessed.
At Vanguard Medical Concepts, we've also made a corporate commitment to being an environmental champion by embracing the three Rs: recycle, reuse and reprocess. The question was how to implement these three Rs in a way that benefited both our hospital customers and the environment.
For us the answer was in a revolutionary new program for the medical device-reprocessing industry, one that dramatically reduces a hospital's medical waste and related disposal costs while eliminating up to 70% of operating room metals and plastics from our communities' landfills.
Much the same way that Vanguard pioneered the medical device-reprocessing industry more than a decade ago, this new program is poised to become the next innovation for forward-looking hospitals.
How does it work?
Hospitals use stylized recycling containers in place of the traditional red disposable sharps containers to collect and ship their devices to us, where they are processed using one of the three Rs:
- Reprocess. Devices the FDA has cleared for market are used to create an inventory of quality reprocessed devices for our hospital customers. This inventory improves the performance of their reprocessing program by restocking their device inventory more quickly and maximizing the number of devices they receive.
- Reuse. Devices collected from a hospital that are not yet cleared for market are used by Vanguard's Research Institute to help us meet the FDA's rigorous pre-market requirements necessary to introduce new medical devices for reprocessing.
- Recycle. The remaining devices are broken down to their metal and plastic parts for recycling to minimize our customers' waste stream.
Sierra Club Founder John Muir optimistically warned about preserving America's forests in the late 1800s. He said, "Despite all the waste that has been going on unchecked like a storm for more than two centuries, it is not yet too late."
Muir, along with Theodore Roosevelt and Ralph Waldo Emerson, were among our nation's earliest environmental thought leaders. Now, it is time for our nation's healthcare community to continue its dialogue to protect nature's legacy.
Environmentally responsible healthcare must be the shared responsibility of our entire industry if we are to leave the Earth a better place than we found it, ensuring a cleaner and safer environment for our children. It is not yet too late.
Charles Masek is president and CEO of Vanguard Medical Concepts, the nation's largest medical device reprocessor, based in Lakeland, Fla.