Sustainable Medicine: Proposed Methods to Decrease the Environmental Impacts of the Medical Supply Industry
By: Aftin Pomeroy
Today’s provision of medicine involves the production of an overwhelming supply of medical equipment including surgical and medical devices and health facility equipment. This production utilizes resources such as water, energy and land area while simultaneously generating waste byproducts and draining the foundations of the environment in the name of medical innovation. The United States alone produces more than 6600 tons of medical waste per day, which is equivalent in weight to approximately 1,467 elephants !
In addition to the outrageous amounts of waste produced, increasing levels of disease prevalence, risky behaviors, and population contribute to an increased demand for medical treatment, expanding the medical supply industry. Future advancements such as personalized medicine and genetic engineering could potentially lead to an increase in the average human lifespan, which would further place a strain on the environment as people’s demands for medical supplies increase. Applications of gene editing strategies such as CRISPR could eventually purify the human genome, getting rid of thousands of genetic mutations and diseases such as cancer and muscular dystrophy. Medical professionals might soon possess the tools to take the principles of natural selection into their own hands. Ultimately, a looming exponential increase in global population size is to be expected.
In order to accommodate suppositions of decreasing availability of natural resources and increasing total population size, medical supply giants such as Johnson & Johnson and Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. must strategize their future production plans. According to the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board, “medical equipment accounts for an estimated 18 percent of hospitals’ total energy use, indicating a significant opportunity for improved efficiency.” Current efforts proposed by medical supply manufacturing firms involve the implementation of equipment production practices that rely less on the dwindling quantities of natural resources. Medtronic, a global medical device company headquartered in Ireland, has recently announced its goals to reduce its energy and water use by 10 percent . Moreover, techniques such as plant biofarming are being investigated for their applications in malaria treatment and prevention . The use of traditional medicine in combination with modern medicine alleviates the concentration of synthetic laboratory drug production practices observed in modern medicine alone. Plants with medicinal properties, such as Artemisia annua—which contains Artemisinin, an antimalarial compound that fights against the asexual stages of the malaria parasite life cycle—may help prevent the transmission of the malaria parasite . Due to the reduced cost of producing plant-based antimalarial plant extracts, these herbal treatments may become a more widely used and sustainable approach to reduce malarial infections worldwide.
In addition to the decreased use of raw material inputs during medical supply production, medical operations are now considering the plausibility of extending the lifetime of their equipment. The current standard in medical supply involves the use of long-term instruments, such as MRI machines, while other instruments are manufactured for use and immediately disposable. At present, approximately 90% of medical device waste consists of disposable, one-time use products or components . Legislative measures continue to push for regulation on the length of lifespan of medical supplies; however, due to safety concerns such as product sterilization, attempting this is difficult and the process has remained somewhat stagnant. As a result, medical supply firms are likely to experience pressure from consumers and regulatory affairs in addressing issues such as improving energy efficiency and end-of-life disposal of medical equipment and supplies .
As the efficacy of medicine escalates in response to elevated presence and occurrence of disease, we must also consider the permanent impacts of accelerated medical device production and waste. We all hope for a brighter future and welcome the thought of medical advancements promising better quality of life. However, in order to achieve and maintain an environmental equilibrium, compensation for the loss of natural resources is required. After much consideration, legislative bodies, medical supply firms and biotechnology companies alike are now initiating the prerequisites to what needs to become a standard practice of sustainable medicine.
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