Difficult, but not impossible: Sustainability in Healthcare

Every company and every industry will be transformed by the transition to a net zero world.
The question is, will you lead, or will you be led?

Larry Fink, CEO von BlackRock

Companies will not be able to avoid the megatrend “sustainability” over the next few years. For investors such as BlackRock, for (prospective) employees and also customers, the topic is becoming a decision-making factor. Therefore, the importance increases that the rather conservative pharmaceutical and medtech industry catches up and deals with sustainable actions.

With Milani design & consulting AG as a specialist for sustainability at our side, WILDDESIGN will start to focus even more on sustainability. Markus Wild is also involved as a partner in the Healthcare Shapers network. The members recognize and promote the megatrend of sustainability and are committed to it in various areas. The following input of some of the Healthcare Shapers gives a first insight into the diverse approaches.

Saving resources

Thinking about future generations and saving resources – this is probably the best-known approach when it comes to sustainability. To protect resources can already be included in everyday work. Peter Teich mentions the materials for sales representatives in pharmaceutical marketing as an example: “When I started, a lot was printed on high-gloss paper. In the meantime, the iPad is now accepted for field sales representatives, too.”

It is true that new approaches always imply changes and, in many cases, higher costs. But André Pöhler sees opportunities, too, for example in digitization. Apps such as “doctolib” reduce bureaucratic efforts in medical practices and video conferences or consultations result in more efficient work: “For me, it is a win-win situation. For example, field sales representatives can talk to more doctors than if they were driving around,” says André Pöhler.

In addition, processes can be optimized in many areas to save energy. Hospitals with high energy requirements are an example. Switching from fossil to renewable fuels might be prioritized in the future.

Recycling and avoiding waste

If you imagine the global healthcare and lifesciences sector as a country, it would be the fifth largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Packaging and disposables produce large amounts of waste. “Recycling is practically impossible in this process. Packagings must meet certain characteristics to ensure the sterility of the product. In addition, the actual product is contaminated by the patient’s blood and body fluids and cannot be recycled regularly,” explains Christoph Eisenhardt.

For patients, products become more practical and user-friendly. However, the rising complexity also increases consumption. If we compare the weight-related loss of resources, the loss for the infusion set of an insulin pump is about 70-200% of that of a “Coffee to Go” paper cup. In comparison, the loss increases dramatically when using a patch pump: 1821600% compared to the paper cup. This is due to the combination of different materials and partly electronics, as in the case of the patch pump. Christoph Eisenhardt could imagine tackling this problem already in the design of a product. The Healthcare Shapers also bring a lot of know-how in product design to the table.

One possibility, for example, would be sustainable and biodegradable plastic. For Manfred Augstein, the issue is currently gaining relevance because of the Covid tests, as they generate large amounts of plastic and hazardous waste. Here, too, it depends on the materials: “In surgery, there are already small series with biobased materials. Unfortunately, still very hesitant, as the materials are often more expensive than the standard petroleum-based materials,” says Manfred Augstein. However, if producers would accept slightly higher prices in the future, prices could become more attractive again in higher production volumes.

Regulatory requirements as obstacles

Blocking the path: Regulations for medical devices often represent another obstacle on the way to more sustainable productions. Disposables or extensive packagings are mandatory for compliance with hygiene and sterility. Since January 2021, there is now an EU plastic tax for medical devices.

According to Detlef Mangels, companies in the medical technology sector can only react to a limited extent: “If we change something about a product, that is considered as a design change. According to the Medical Device Regulation (MDR), it must be re-approved. Of course, that takes time.” Therefore, compromises have to be made, as Frank Sodha emphasizes: “In some cases, there are regulations that go far beyond the necessary safety of a product. In my opinion, both sides – those who decide on the approval as well as those who manufacture it – have to approach each other.”

Compulsory sustainability: Reporting requirements

On the other hand, legal demands for sustainability are also increasing. The 2014 corporate social responsibility and its reporting requirements only took effect for larger or listed companies. Scope 1 and Scope 2 are currently subject to reporting requirements, the former covering self-produced emissions, the latter purchased energy. Scope 3 covers all other aspects but has not been subject to reporting requirements to date.

In the future, companies in the EU with 250 and more employees will have to report. According to Frank Roth, a lot of companies are suddenly forced to deal with sustainability. Even if sustainability has not been an issue for some companies so far, the pressure is increasing. For Peter Teich, this means: “In the company, I need a strategy and ideally a sustainability manager. At the moment, it is often assigned to someone and made on the side for the time being, but most pharmaceutical companies do not have a clear strategy yet.”

Sustainability as a competitive advantage

“Sustainability has become a central selection pressure for today’s business models. According to the CEO of BlackRock, the world’s largest investment company, most stakeholders expect companies to play a central role in decarbonizing the global economy” – that’s how Peter Becker describes it. Sustainability is already a decision factor in Scandinavian markets, alongside price.

It is becoming more important – for shareholders, employees and customers. This growing awareness is already visible in everyday life – instead of plastic bags, linen bags are used and instead of the car, perhaps the train or bicycle is used to get to work. Even if the medical technology and life sciences sectors were not the first to react to these changes, the impact is growing as well. “The problem? We talk a lot about sustainability, but we do not do it. Because in reality, it is extremely expensive,” summarizes Frank Sodha.

But where do you start?

André Pöhler describes it this way: “As they say: The first 80 percent involves 20 percent of the total effort. The last 20 percent is disproportionately difficult to achieve, but let’s start with the 80 percent for now.” The Healthcare Shapers start at that point and offer an incentive for a shift in thinking. A conclusion from the conversations about sustainability is that there are many small steps that get us closer to the goal. For example, our designers often consult the Sustainable Design Principles to make healthcare products more sustainable.

Talk to us about sustainability in medical device development. We can show you different ways, starting on a strategical or the working level. Many of them coincide e.g. with approaches of cost reduction or optimization of use. Send an email to markus.wild@wilddesign.de to get the conversation started.

Which concepts and strategies for sustainability are you already using? Feel free to write us a comment!

References / additional Links

Calm - Privacy in the hospital | Design Sprint 14
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Lydia writes about design processes and our medical design projects.

Originally written by Lydia Münstermann, 29. April 2023. Last updated 02. May 2023


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