If the US healthcare sector were a country, it would rank 13th in the world for greenhouse gas emissions. Entrepreneurs can help.
How much waste is generated in keeping us healthy?
When I was younger, I needed to get rid of some old medication containers. This was long before curbside recycling programs had made their way to suburbia Texas, so I called the pharmacy to see if they had any recommendations. Trust me when I say they were not very receptive or forthcoming with advice.
While I never found a completely satisfactory solution, the whole experience got me thinking about sustainability and health care.
Pollution often conjures up images of things that are dirty. It can be hard to think about the squeaky clean halls and stale air of the hospital or doctor’s office as having such harmful effects on the environment, but they do. In the US, the health sector is responsible for almost 10% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. Put another way, as this study noted, if the US healthcare sector were a country, it would rank 13th in the world for its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.
If you have ever been admitted to the hospital, it isn’t hard to fathom how much waste is produced. Every time a glove is taken off or an IV given, plastic or latex goes in the trash, since most hospitals don’t recycle their waste. In fact, a patient in the hospital generates more than four times the waste than they do at home, 33 pounds versus four — and this is a conservative estimate from a group of hospitals that had recycling practices in place.
The system designed to heal us is actually contributing to making us sick. Like waste generation, specific figures on how healthcare waste and related emissions harms us is hard to come by, but it’s estimated that the sector is responsible for nine percent of respiratory disease in the country caused by particulate matter.
How innovation can drive down our healthcare footprint
The most innovative drivers of change in healthcare sustainability will be driven by market forces. This is true for sustainability in other sectors, and it is true for health. It is simply good business to design and implement solutions that mitigate the disastrous effects that healthcare and healthcare products have on the environment.
There have been some encouraging signs. Some are probably familiar with Kaiser Permanente’s “Total Health” philosophy, an approach to impact patients beyond just a doctor’s visit. Kaiser Permanente has set lofty goals of sustainability that they hope to achieve by 2025, including becoming “carbon net positive” and purchasing their food from locally-produced sources or from farms that implement sustainable practices. They have internalized this philosophy, and each action the organization takes is deliberate in achieving the goal of creating not just a healthy patient but a healthy environment.
While corporations are undoubtedly part of the solution, the most groundbreaking innovations will come from startups. Healthcare entrepreneurs are already developing products that have a smaller footprint on the planet.
For instance, millions of pregnancy tests are used every year in the U.S. Almost all of them use plastic to house and protect the absorbent urine pad and immunoassay strip that detects hCG. An early-stage venture in Philadelphia, LIA Diagnostics, is addressing this issue by creating flushable pregnancy tests, which come without the plastic casing. Their product has the added benefit of privacy: no used pregnancy tests in the trash.
Another path to a greener healthcare experience is to deliver better ways for patients to access care. Des Moines-based Certintell is developing a telemedicine platform for smartphones that lets patients to virtually connect with their physicians, eliminating the need to physically go to the doctor’s office. By removing the need to be physically present, Certintell and other telemedicine solutions provide better access to doctors, while also reducing the energy costs related to transportation. Future advances in telemedicine and remote patient monitoring could provide a further reduction in emissions.
Sustainability is not just an energy and agriculture problem. Sustainable innovations are needed across all sectors, especially healthcare, to drive down greenhouse gas emissions and create a greener, healthier planet. This isn’t a zero sum game; we should be able to remain healthy without making the planet sick.