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Sustainability program aims to reduce hospital waste at University of Minnesota Medical Center

“Over the past five years, we’ve learned hospitals can eliminate a staggering amount of garbage from their surgical processes.”
Thoracic Surgeon Rafael Andrade introduced a new sustainability program to University of Minnesota Medical Center in 2010. That year alone, the program kept 10,500 pounds of garbage from entering the waste system.

From packaging to gauze to one-time plastic tools, hospitals produce a lot of waste.

But Rafael Andrade, MD, a thoracic surgeon at University of Minnesota Medical Center, knows this excessive pollution is hurting the environment—and his patients' health.

That’s why Andrade started a “Greening the Operating Room” program in 2010. By working with vendors to re-pack surgical kits with more re-useable tools, he kept 10,500 lbs. of garbage from entering the waste stream that year, saving the organization $116,000.

Andrade’s continued efforts to improve sustainability were recently recognized on May 14 when he received the Partner for Change award by Practice Green Health, a national healthcare organization that empowers its members to improve environmental stewardship, patient safety and care delivery.

“Over the past five years, we’ve learned hospitals can eliminate a staggering amount of garbage from their surgical processes,” said Andrade, who is also an associate professor of surgery at the University of Minnesota. “In the short term, its helps our bottom line, but in the long term it improves patients’ well-being because a healthy environment is healthier for our communities.”

Staggering may be an understatement.

By some estimates, the United States healthcare system creates more than 4 billion pounds of waste per year. For hospitals, the operating room is thought to generate 20 to 50 percent of a facility’s waste, a key area for improvement.

With renewed emphasis on its Greening the OR initiative, University of Minnesota Medical Center has already eliminated nearly 800 pounds of waste from its footprint this year, saving the organization about $11,000.

According to Wesli Waters, sustainability manager for Fairview Health Services, buy-in remains a challenge. The medical industry for decades has honed surgical processes to ensure optimal results. Revising this status quo takes time.

But, as care teams learn that sustainable practices can ensure quality outcomes and create healthier communities in the long run, Waters says she’s confident that providers will adopt such measures.

Andrade’s hopeful too, explaining that the potential benefits to the state are hard to ignore.

“University of Minnesota Medical Center educates 70 percent of our state’s health professionals,” Andrade said. “So if up-and-coming providers are surrounded by successful efforts like Greening The OR, they’ll be more likely to implement similar techniques wherever they end up.”