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Reprocessing single-use medical devices boosts circular economy for hospitals

A circular medical device industry is established on resource conservation, efficiency and cycles of reuse and material recovery.

Jeff Lagasse, Associate Editor

Regulated medical device reprocessing is an important tool in improving environmental and public health outcomes, according to a new analysis published in Health Affairs

Health care systems generate significant amounts of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, the vast majority of which come from the supply chain. Hospitals that have medical devices reprocessed by regulated reprocessors removed more than 7,100 tons of waste, a number that could grow dramatically, according to the researchers.

Ultimately, it was COVID-19 that shined a light on the healthcare supply chain's vulnerabilities, and device reprocessing holds promise in creating a more resilient and cost-effective healthcare system, the authors said. 

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A circular medical device industry is established on principles of resource conservation, efficiency and cycles of reuse and material recovery. It requires safe, effective products and services provided by regulated reprocessors.


Reprocessing of medical devices saves hospitals money.

Relying on AMDR data, the study noted that, in 2018 alone, reprocessing companies in the U.S., Canada and Europe reduced hospital solid-waste generation by almost 7,100 tons and generated cost savings of more than $470 million for healthcare institutions.

"Reprocessing" refers to, among other steps, the cleaning, inspection, testing and repackaging of a medical device originally labelled for single use so that it may be returned to service one or more times. The study traced these environmental issues to healthcare supply chains. Specifically, the authors noted an over-reliance on medical devices that are designed and labelled for "single-use," used once and then disposed of – even if many of these products can be reused safely. 

This cycle of singular use and then disposal, according to the researchers, constitutes what they refer to as a "linear economy." The linear economy at hospitals is a primary source of waste, pollution and emissions in the healthcare system, as well as a cause of unnecessary financial costs and vulnerability to disruption or demand fluctuation.

To address these issues, the authors recommend that the linear economy be replaced with a "circular economy," in which products are maintained in circulation for as long as possible before disposal. They identified improvements through which stakeholders in the healthcare system, such as hospitals, medical device manufacturers and regulators, could increase the circularity of the industry.

To drive the circular economy, improvements could include a full life-cycle accounting of the environmental impact of medical devices and stricter procurement policies on the part of hospitals giving preference to reusable and sustainable products. Further, reusable and reprocessable single-use devices should be preferred over single-use or other devices that are used once and discarded.


In 2019, an annual Navigant analysis found that unnecessary hospital spending on supply chain products and related operations and procedures had reached about $25.7 billion a year. The potential savings opportunity represents a 11.8% surge from 2017, representing $2.7 billion.

For individual hospitals, the average total supply expense reduction opportunity by percent remained steady at 17.4%, but the dollar savings opportunity jumped 22.6% from 2017 to $12.1 million. This amount is equivalent to the average annual salaries of 165 registered nurses or 50 primary care physicians, or the average cost of 3,100 knee implants.

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