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Should hospitals reuse medical supplies? A new study says yes.

Topic: Should hospitals reuse medical supplies? A new study says yes.

In 2015, a marine biologist filmed her team removing a plastic straw from a sea turtle’s nostril. The video went viral, and a few years later, the global campaign to eliminate single-use plastics was in full swing. Companies like Starbucks, McDonald’s, Evian, United Airlines, and even Red Lobster vowed to cut down on plastic waste. But even the most stringent anti-straw advocates among us know that sustainability has its limits. When it comes to the tools doctors use to poke, prod, test, and treat us with, human safety, not the safety of the planet, is paramount.

But the two aren’t always in conflict, according to a paper in the December issue of Health Affairs — the first-ever issue on the intersection of climate and health. There’s a way to cut down on medical waste and the emissions produced by manufacturing new medical supplies, according to the analysis, which notes that the supply chain is responsible for 80 percent of the emissions from healthcare sources in the U.S. The solution is called medical device reprocessing.

Medical device reprocessing, a little-known industry in the global health care sector that cleans, inspects, and repackages used hospital equipment, has doubled in size every year for the past 20 years, the Association of Medical Reprocessors says. In 2018, medical device reprocessing diverted 15 million pounds of medical waste from landfills and saved healthcare institutions an estimated $470 million.

This industry isn’t in the business of reprocessing things like syringes, catheters, and needles — the authors of the study recommend recycling those products for their base materials instead of reprocessing them. The study, a review of previous research published last Monday, focuses on “mid-range complexity” medical devices, equipment like ultrasound probes, blood pressure cuffs, some kinds of forceps, and laparoscopic tools, all of which can be cleaned and reused. The analysis was conducted by professors working in medical schools at a number of top universities around the world.

“There are opportunities to reduce emissions without sacrificing health care quality,” Jodi D. Sherman, an associate professor of anesthesiology in the Yale School of Medicine and a member of the research team that worked on the study said at a press conference last week. (The department Sherman directs has received funding from the Association for Medical Device Reprocessors.*) Not to mention, investing in systems that encourage reusing products will help avoid the kind of system-wide shortages hospitals experienced this year during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, it’s possible to safely decontaminate and recirculate N95 masks, a crucial piece of personal protective equipment that has been in short supply throughout the pandemic. But a couple of obstacles stand in the way of reducing waste and emissions from the medical supply chain.

Topic Discussed: Should hospitals reuse medical supplies? A new study says yes.

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