Re-Use in Healthcare: It is Time to Unify and Amplify the Voices

In the 2000s, the environmental movement towards the use of sustainable purchasing and consumption practices really started to resonate in healthcare. Today, many hospitals have policies in place to favor environmentally friendly products and to ensure that the environmental footprint of the hospital is limited. In roughly the same time frame, single-use device reprocessing became a celebrated strategy for simultaneously reducing costs and reducing environmental impact. Both movements have become relatively successful and have established themselves in healthcare. However, they remain specialized, insulated efforts with limited “voice” in the broader healthcare governance landscape.

Meanwhile, in consumer markets, the Right to Repair movement (repair.org) has focused on the consumer’s right to be able to use repair services to competitively repair their automobile or electronics, without the restrictions that original equipment manufacturers typically impose to protect their profits. This movement has been somewhat successful in having legislation changed at the state level.

There is a bigger theme underlying these three, and other, similar movements: It is neither financially nor environmentally sustainable to continue to use products, then throw them away when the manufacturer says it is time to throw them away and buy new. The confluence of environmental and financial sustainability considerations is advocated under the “circular economy” banner, which is becoming increasingly – politically and legally – influential, primarily in places like Europe. I have written about reprocessing and the circular economy, but to celebrate the role of reprocessing as a circular economy practice is not the purpose of this post.  

 

...It is neither financially nor environmentally sustainable to continue to use products, then throw them away when the manufacturer says it is time to throw them away and buy new.

 

Supply chain constraints and financial losses caused by the initial phases of the Coronavirus pandemic have presented us with an opportunity to unite and amplify separate voices that advocate different aspects of a circular healthcare economy. Supply chain resiliency and control, healthcare cost reduction considerations, and environmentally responsible behavior have coalesced as elements in a comprehensive new agenda for how healthcare products are produced, consumed and discarded. Hospitals have experienced a dangerous supply deficiency in PPE, unsustainable resource strains on ICUs and related areas, and a general need to find ways to re-use products in order to be able to remain financially sustainable and continue to provide necessary care. I have certainly heard hospital decision makers call for a new supply chain paradigm that is less controlled by manufacturers, less vulnerable to demand fluctuations, and more in tune with consumer perspectives on re-use and environmental friendliness: They do not want to see a repeat of a situation where hospital workers had to quarantine their gloves for 2 weeks in a plastic bag, meet in the morning to build hospital masks out of scrubs, or decline needed healthcare services to patients because they were out of beds.

On the surface, single-use device reprocessing, environmental purchasing, and right to repair in consumer electronics are only peripherally related. Additionally, each movement has strong limitations in terms of creating fundamental change in healthcare practices; simply put, their voice isn’t loud enough.

The Remanufacturing Industries Council organizes companies, organizations, institutions and individuals who advocate for remanufacturing as a means of reducing environmental impact, costs, and unfair manufacturing dominance – across industries. The purpose of the association is to combine voices and thereby making them louder, creating the foundation for legislative reform and a general change in production and consumption practices.

I believe that a similar type of association focused on healthcare could unite and amplify the diverse voices in healthcare who advocate for cost reduction, reuse, and sustainability. Beyond purely circular economy company and associations, other organizations/associations in healthcare promote similar objectives. One powerful example is generic drugs and the Association for Accessible Medicines. Similar to the healthcare reprocessing industry, the healthcare repair industry, etc., this association strives to reduce costs in healthcare and create a more equitable and sustainable marketplace for healthcare production and consumption of goods and services.

 

...a similar type of association focused on healthcare could unite and amplify the diverse voices in healthcare who advocate for cost reduction, reuse, and sustainability.

 

Without a broader coalition or council for organizations that fight to reduce costs in healthcare and create a more equitable and sustainable healthcare marketplace, there is great risk that the post-pandemic circular economy tailwind dies out and what could have been a strong, impactful voice becomes a whole lot of chirping from different corners of the healthcare universe.

 

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