In March and April, we Houstonians held our collective breath as COVID-19 cases continued to spike in New York City. We sympathized with healthcare providers working on the frontlines and showed our support. Then came Memorial Day weekend, and the number of cases rose sharply in the following weeks. More and more Houstonians tested positive, and shortly thereafter Houston became a new hotspot.
As a medical student seeing patients in the Texas Medical Center, full personal protective equipment became my everyday attire. I quickly lost track of the number of N95 masks, plastic gowns, and latex gloves I went through each week.
Now, with a national PPE shortage, it breaks my heart every time I exit a patient’s room with my team of residents, nurses and attending physicians and I watch as the whole group puts their gowns and gloves straight in the trash. In a world with less waste, maybe we wouldn’t find ourselves in a shortage of products made from plastic.
Why do we choose not to focus on environmental sustainability in healthcare? It’s a question I’ve asked myself repeatedly throughout medical school. There are a few main reasons.
First, there is the issue of good hygiene. We want our surgeons to maintain a sterile field during an operation to reduce risk of infection. Proper handwashing technique has saved millions of lives. Airborne and contact precautions promote effective infection control.
Second, there is the issue of patient confidentiality. I was shocked to learn that paper never gets recycled in our hospitals here in Houston due to concerns of protected health information (PHI). That’s right, the world’s largest medical center does not recycle. And trust me, 21 hospitals go through a lot of paper.
The result is that health systems are among the highest waste-generating sectors in the world. While more and more companies and organizations in private and public sectors alike are addressing the significance of climate change and implementing new sustainability strategies, the healthcare sector has remained stubbornly silent.
The excuses for not prioritizing environmental sustainability in healthcare are good, but not good enough. We need to reduce the exorbitant amount of waste produced every day by our hospitals.
In Houston and in high-income countries, the increasing use of disposable instruments and prepackaged materials generates a tremendous amount of waste. I recently helped perform a minor procedure on a patient with several metal instruments, all of which were promptly thrown in the trash upon completion. And one might assume that this waste goes straight to landfills, but the vast majority of medical waste gets incinerated due to biohazard risks. That’s a lot of burned plastic contributing to emissions in our atmosphere.
But trash generation is not the only component of healthcare’s environmental impact. From wastewater to energy consumption to toxic chemicals, our hospitals have a colossal carbon footprint.
We as healthcare professionals need to demand change. We need to urge lawmakers and hospital boards to pass bills and implement policies that improve efficiency and decrease waste. Take, for example, our source of electricity. Hospitals are big buildings and Texas is a sunny state; why not install solar panels on the rooftops?
There are so many advantages to taking action: increased financial savings, improved efficiency, and reduced environmental risk. In a time where we currently face a pandemic, a hurting economy, and a suffering planet, these changes are certainly worth fighting for.
-By Marisa Hudson, third-year medical student at Baylor College of Medicine