James Minards, UK country manager at GHX, looks at how the healthcare sector can meet its carbon reduction targets through interventions such as scaling down the reliance on single-use plastics to cutting waste through a more-efficient, digitalised supply chain and procurement system
To ensure sustainability across the healthcare sector, attention needs to be paid to the way organisations procure critical supplies
The COP26 conference has brought into sharp focus the necessity for increased sustainability across every industry, and the healthcare sector is no exception.
From delivery delays, to shortages of critical supplies during the spike in demand for PPE; the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted well-documented weaknesses in the healthcare sector’s approach to supply chain management.
But it also shone a light on some inherently-unsustainable practices, including an over-reliance on single-use plastics and disposable personal protective equipment (PPE).
So, with the critical importance of global climate change in mind, how can the healthcare sector contribute and what steps can healthcare leaders take to address the sector’s own sustainability issues?
The widespread use of PPE created a clear disruption in both the healthcare supply chain and the global waste disposal system.
Millions of discarded single-use plastics (masks, gloves, aprons, and bottles of sanitisers) led to an exponential increase in the use of plastics, a core ingredient for many forms of disposable PPE; showing how a health crisis can result in the unintended reversal of sustainability practices, ultimately increasing waste.
From delivery delays, to shortages of critical supplies during the spike in demand for PPE; the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted well-documented weaknesses in the healthcare sector’s approach to supply chain management
It also exposed a weakness in the delivery of medical equipment.
Of course, amid a pandemic, or any other dramatic increase in demand; health systems must acquire more supplies to deliver care, and the unprecedented spike in demand for PPE is just one example.
But the struggle to increase the supply of necessary equipment to healthcare providers highlighted challenges with the just-in-time (JIT) model traditionally used by healthcare providers.
This is a model that delivers just enough materials to meet demand and while it can minimise waste and the need to store excessive amounts of materials on site, it also means healthcare providers have little room to adapt to a sudden sharp increase in demand.
During COVID-19, this inflexibility, coupled with poor visibility across the supply chain, made it difficult to identify when, or even if, the right amount of goods would arrive.
And it’s this exposed lack of visibility which has been perhaps the most important impact of COVID-19 on the healthcare supply chain.
While the widespread use of reusable PPE could still be many years away, supply chain visibility is one area where technology already exists to support immediate improvements and, in turn, improve sustainability.
Improving visibility across the healthcare supply chain would mean that components, equipment, and products could be tracked from manufacturer to consumer, with logistical information shared to reduce errors, promote quick responses, and allow for the reshaping of demand or redirection of supplies.
By gathering data from providers and suppliers – and sharing data between parties – it is possible to better understand how to optimise the entire system and uncover the unintended consequences of certain decisions on our environment so they may be avoided in future
A deeper understanding of how supply partners are managing risk would mean that providers can make sourcing and contracting decisions to minimise potential supply chain disruptions.
So, for example, if a consultant can see that there’s a shortage in a specific implant, they might postpone any elective joint replacement surgeries and instead schedule other operations that don’t require that item.
And the key starting point to all of this is data.
By gathering data from providers and suppliers – and sharing data between parties – it is possible to better understand how to optimise the entire system and uncover the unintended consequences of certain decisions on our environment so they may be avoided in future.
Data sharing would mean that trading partners could work collaboratively to understand demand and address potential problems in real time with increased agility to ensure accurate decision-making, reduce waste, and improve sustainability in the short term.
In the longer term, the integration of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automation-driven initiatives, such as the integration of real-time stock tracking through hand-held scanners, could be the next logical step for healthcare providers looking to avoid unforeseen shortages.
The use of machine learning and automation can also help power predictive analytics within the healthcare supply chain, using historic and real-time data to better understand where, and when, spikes in demand for PPE, for example, may occur.
This information can be used to alert manufacturers to a potential increase in demand before it occurs and, in some advanced cases, automating manufacturing and procurement processes to seamlessly increase the volume of materials being created and ordered.
For the healthcare sector to go green in the long term, it needs to look to data, automation, and AI technologies to help facilitate sourcing sustainable products and ensuring these products are available in sufficient quantities, when, and where, they are most needed
In a nutshell, predictive analytics can take the data and automated processes and use them to ensure the risk of demand outstripping supply can be mitigated without generating excessive waste.
As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic with greater awareness and understanding of the challenges and the potential solutions available to address sustainability within the healthcare supply chain, now is the time for the healthcare sector to reconsider how it is structured and supported technologically.
For the healthcare sector to go green in the long term, it needs to look to data, automation, and AI technologies to help facilitate sourcing sustainable products and ensuring these products are available in sufficient quantities, when, and where, they are most needed.