Consider this scenario: if your knee hurts, you call the doctor and make an appointment. You drive to their office and they ask you some questions and maybe do some simple tests. They then decide to take an x-ray and do blood tests which are located in another facility. You drive to that office for tests and then go home.
The next week you have a follow-up visit with the doctor at their office which you drive to to review the test results. The doctor prescribes some pain medication which you take to the off-site pharmacy. It takes them 4 hours to fill the prescription so you go home while you wait for their call. When you pick it up you get two week’s worth of individually wrapped anti-inflammatory pills. You’re still experiencing pain when the prescription runs out so the doctor writes you a new prescription and you repeat the whole process again.
Better Urban Planning
There are several problems with the above scenario that could be addressed just through better and more sustainable urban planning. Health care visits are rarely addressed all at one location. Traveling between facilities not only takes a lot of time but uses a lot of fossil fuels. Or it may not be feasible for a patient to drive themselves between locations in which case an ambulance or other large vehicle is necessary which uses even more gas.
It’s much cheaper and more efficient to create a single environmentally friendly facility than multiple separate locations. With a single facility you can easily ensure all the lights are fluorescent, the walls are properly insulated, the windows sealed, and the cleaners are environmentally friendly. Housing multiple facilities all in one location also reduces the fuel needed for deliveries and encourages distributors to locate near the main health care facility.
Medicine packaging is another issue that healthcare providers have been slow to address. More often than not medicine is packaged in throw away containers that fill up our landfills and make their way into the environment. Establishing a program that incentivizes patients to reuse or return pill containers by offering discounts on refills would drastically reduce the amount of plastic used by pharmacies.
In instances where individually wrapped medicine is required there are good corn and other plant based materials that are compostable or quickly break down when thrown away. Investing in more environmentally friendly packaging would go a long way towards making the healthcare industry more sustainable.
Better Disposal of Supplies
There are plenty of good reasons to be weary of recycling or reusing medical supplies. Most people are uncomfortable with the idea that a syringe could be used on more that one person. However, recycling technology has gotten to where we can recycle hard and soft plastics, metals, and glass without fear of transferring diseases.
The recycling process uses heat and sanitizers strong enough to kill bacteria and viruses. Implementing comprehensive recycling programs in our hospitals will greatly reduce the amount of refuse that ends up in our landfills. Throwing away used medical equipment is safe in the long-term but that could all change if there’s a leak in the landfill.
As our population gets older and older there will be more and more people in need of medical care. The sooner we start addressing the environmental impacts of our healthcare system the better.