Climate Change and MedTech: How our industry is impacted—and fighting back

Illustration by Mary Delaney
Illustration by Mary Delaney

From the creation of new sustainability-specific executive roles in medtech corporations to the mass disruptions of supply chains, the effects of climate change on our industry are palpable. 

Clearly, there’s room for innovation here. And a growing health burden we must address.

But we must also acknowledge the elephant in the room. As an industry, healthcare is a major contributor to climate change. 

Researchers have estimated that the health sector emissions in the UK and Australia respectively represent 3%–4% and 7% of national emissions. In the U.S., that number reaches 10%. In Canada, researchers have even illustrated healthcare’s carbon footprint as resulting in 23,000 years of life lost to disability or early death. That number is annual.

There should be no question that our industry must address climate change. If not for the health of our planet and its people, then for its own continued function.

So, let’s explore how climate change is hurting our industry—and what our industry is currently doing to help address it.

The negative effects of climate change on the medtech industry

The pandemic underscored the fragility of global supply chains—and our industry felt it. Climate change-related extreme weather events threaten to create medical device shortages in a similar way. 

“The pandemic is ‘a temporary problem’, while climate change is ‘long-term dire,’” said Austin Becker, an infrastructure resilience scholar at the University of Rhode Island.

Here’s an example to illustrate how this is happening already. In February 2021, the Texas freeze caused the worst involuntary energy blackout in U.S. history. This blackout closed down three major semiconductor plants, contributing to the dire microchip shortage many medical device manufacturers have been dealing with.

Outside of acute disasters, rising sea levels threaten the transportation infrastructure all supply chains rely on—especially global ones, which many medical technology supply chains are.

Plus, according to the FDA, the lifespans of individual medical devices are threatened by higher temperatures and rising exposure to humidity. Volatile temperature and humidity levels may cause devices to malfunction before the expected shelf-life or even completely destroy products.

How medtechs are addressing climate change

Climate change-related health issues are a public health crisis. As we write this newsletter, unprecedented wildfires raging across Canada are covering northeastern North America in dangerous plumes of surface-level smoke, putting millions of people’s health and lives at risk.

But the health conditions exacerbated by climate change go beyond the usual suspects of lung and heart disease. The American Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) puts it well: “Climate change affects the food we eat, the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the places that provide us with shelter.” 

In other words, the health concerns that trace back to climate change can range from nutrition to mental health. All of these health concerns—especially the mission to prevent them and build a healthier future—should be seen by our industry as an opportunity for innovation.

Additionally, our industry must continue striving to create more climate-friendly alternatives to existing technologies—such as electric ambulances or anesthetics without greenhouse gas emissions.

And even if we don’t begin new ventures or research related to the health impacts of climate change, there are steps we can take within our companies to help ameliorate this global crisis. As an industry, we should look at this as an opportunity lead, especially with respect to the prioritization of ESG strategies. 

In fact, looking at this issue from a purely strategic lens, the prioritization of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) strategies can help medtechs compete in a saturated market. 

EY points out that U.S. investors are increasingly paying attention to ESG-related developments, with the Biden administration’s and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)’s respective recent commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. When operating in a highly carbon-intensive industry like healthcare, young companies prioritizing climate impacts from the ground up may have a competitive advantage.

We’re encouraged by big players in our industry taking actions like joining in the UN-backed campaign Race to Zero, committing to dramatically slashing their emissions. But we believe it doesn’t need to require the large resources of companies like Philips to take action on the global health crisis that is climate change. For many of us, it may take some creativity to determine how we can best do our part, but creativity is something we know our industry is never short on.

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