Sustainability in medicine: Single-use medical supplies

USC’s health sciences schools and Keck Medicine of USC aim to heal the planet. (Photo/iStock)


Keck Medicine of USC and USC’s health sciences schools make sustainability a priority

By upcycling ocean plastics, reducing harmful anesthesia gases and transforming medical supply chains, the USC health system and medical research schools hope to curb pollution.

May 21, 2024 By Leigh Hopper

Anyone who has spent time in a hospital or doctor’s office can see the enormous amount of waste generated in patient care. But at Keck Medicine of USC and within USC’s health sciences schools, there’s a robust movement to shrink health care’s carbon footprint.

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As part of USC President Carol Folt’s sustainability “moonshot,” USC’s Office of Health Affairs organized a recent panel discussion on the issue of medical waste. The office, led by Senior Vice President for Health Affairs Steve Shapiro, encompasses USC’s health system and the university’s five health sciences schools: the Keck School of Medicine of USC, the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, the USC Mann School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC, which includes the USC Mrs. T.H. Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy and the USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy.

“Keck Medicine and the health sciences schools stand at the forefront of climate action, driving change within our hospital, our schools, across our campuses and within our local communities,” said Michele Kipke, associate vice president for strategic health alliances, who helped organize the panel. “Through innovation, we’re paving the way toward a more sustainable future.”

Anesthesiologist Arash Motamed, medical director of sustainability with Keck Medicine, detailed plans to continue reducing the use of environmentally harmful anesthesia gases in surgery. Last year, Keck Hospital of USC and USC Norris Cancer Hospital eliminated nitrous oxide and desflurane. Next up is cutting the use of two more anesthetics — sevoflurane and isoflurane — by 75%.

The annual reduction in emissions would represent the equivalent of driving around Earth’s circumference more than six times, Motamed said.

Sustainability in medicine: Working with industry partners

Motamed also discussed negotiations with industry partners to customize medical supply kits and offer reusable supplies. Many medical supplies come in packs that include items that are unnecessary and go straight to landfills. Reusable laryngoscopes, a tool used to check a patient’s airway, will be rolled out soon.

Other panelists described a wide array of sustainable initiatives:

For environmental health researcher Max Aung, the panel was a chance to meet new colleagues and kick off potential collaborations. Aung and fellow researcher Lida Chatzi won a USC President’s Sustainability Initiative Award for their project assessing community exposures to “forever chemicals” or PFAS (short for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances) via drinking water in Southern California.

“I didn’t realize how much exciting sustainability stuff is going on across USC,” Aung said after the panel. “I think there’s a lot of potential for collaboration, for workshopping ideas together.”