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The Role of Reprocessing in Reducing Carbon Emissions

By Lars Thording, VP of Marketing & Public Affairs at Innovative Health LLC

Medical device reprocessing has historically been pursued as a means of achieving substantial cost savings. However, circular solutions like these have other inherent benefits, including the ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Circular economy solutions are common in many industries, as seen in the reuse of soda bottles, retreading of truck tires, or the refurbishment of phones. In healthcare however, linear production-consumption models are pervasive, and as a result, healthcare is not only more expensive than it needs to be, but it is also responsible for more emissions than necessary. 

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Globally, healthcare is responsible for almost 5 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions, and over 80 percent of this comes from the supply chain – not from hospital operations. In other words, it is the suppliers in healthcare that produce the environmental harm, not the hospitals themselves, except for their part in making purchasing decisions. This is also known as “scope 3” emissions, and historically, regulations to drive down environmental harm have overlooked these.

However, this is changing, and regulatory agencies and government offices are now focusing on these, and such focus will force manufacturers to look at the environmental footprint of the goods they sell to hospitals. A recent study in the journal Sustainability (see figure below) showed that a reprocessed electrophysiology catheter produces less than half the harm of a new catheter, so the impact on the environment from using reprocessed devices can be substantial.

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Single-use device reprocessing reduces environmental harm in two ways:

  1. Devices that would normally be send to incineration are captured and reprocessed for one or more additional uses. Each time this happens, environmental harm is reduced by the weight of the device.
  2. The manufacturing process for a reprocessed device has much lower emissions (CO2) impact than the manufacturing process for a new device. In the below figure, the above-referenced study’s results are shown – the difference in greenhouse gas emissions is 0.88 kg CO2 equivalent, or 2.2046 pounds CO2 equivalent.

As an example, in 2021, one health system on the West Coast was able to reduce its carbon footprint from scope 3 emissions by almost 10,000 pounds CO2 equivalent through electrophysiology reprocessing.

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More generally, a high-performing electrophysiology lab doing 200 procedures per year can reduce its carbon footprint from scope 3 emissions by more than 1,000 pounds CO2 equivalent per year.

Current and potential environmental impact from electrophysiology reprocessing

According to an electrophysiology report by the Decision Resources Group, there were an estimated 613,000 electrophysiology procedures in the United States in 2021. We estimate that a total number of 5,315,000 devices were used in these procedures.

In total, the carbon emissions impact of electrophysiology procedures in the U.S. would be 20,502,722 pounds CO2 equivalent, if only new devices were used. Not all electrophysiology devices can be reprocessed, but if all electrophysiology devices that can be reprocessed were in fact reprocessed, carbon emissions would be reduced by 6,979,673 pounds CO2 equivalent to 13,526,049 pounds CO2 equivalent per year, a significant environmental impact.

Based on the number of hospitals that use reprocessing and the average utilization of reprocessed devices, U.S. healthcare currently reduces its carbon footprint in electrophysiology procedures by 2,076,453 pounds CO2 equivalent per year.

This, however, also means that the U.S. healthcare system could reduce its environmental footprint by an additional 11,449,597 pounds CO2 equivalent per year if reprocessing was used optimally.

Circular economy solutions are poised to become a hot topic in U.S. healthcare, as it has in most other developed countries. One such circular healthcare solution has existed for decades and allowed hospitals to reduce costs, reduce waste, reduce carbon emissions, and build resilience into the supply chain: single-use device reprocessing. Not only is this a proven, regulated solution, but it is also a very impactful solution that allows hospitals to reduce costs by hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, while reducing carbon emissions by thousands of pounds and allowing access to equivalent substitutes in the event of supply chain disruption.

Policy makers in U.S. healthcare should pay attention to reprocessing as a circular economy solution in healthcare and mandate similar initiatives to respond to the need for cost reductions and carbon emission reductions. Healthcare facilities should expand their reprocessing programs and demonstrate good corporate citizenship while dramatically reducing costs to sustain quality of care.

Healthcare Business Today is a leading online publication that covers the business of healthcare. Our stories are written from those who are entrenched in this field and helping to shape the future of this industry. Healthcare Business Today offers readers access to fresh developments in health, medicine, science, and technology as well as the latest in patient news, with an emphasis on how these developments affect our lives.

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