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Kathryn Unger headshot

How the Healthcare Industry Can Confront the Climate Crisis Through its Supply Chain

By Kathryn Unger
medical technology - medical doctor researcher in a lab - healthcare

As Earth’s temperatures continue to rise, it has become evident that protecting the planet will require global cooperation and direct action across every single industry. The healthcare industry is no exception. Indeed, the connection between environmental health and human health underscores the importance of the medical community’s role in reaching net zero carbon emissions. 

The healthcare sector contributes an estimated 4.5 percent of global emissions. Some of these greenhouse gases are produced from healthcare facilities; others are the result of the industry’s supply chain of goods and services. Yet when it comes to climate change, the healthcare industry must go beyond focusing on treating the health conditions resulting from environmental degradation -- and increasingly, we’re seeing industry starting to shift toward helping to prevent those health conditions by addressing climate change itself. 

Boston Scientific is among those medical technology companies working to reduce emissions. Our ambitious effort will involve reevaluating every aspect of business and making changes to support achieving net-zero emissions along the company’s entire value chain. This work represents a considerable challenge, and one whose time has come. 

“Climate change will affect almost every human disease in some way,” says Dr. Kenneth Stein, chief medical officer. “For those of us in the healthcare industry, who are dedicated to improving health and patient outcomes, that’s a worrisome thought. But we can apply our considerable innovative skills toward becoming part of the solution.”

Fortunately, we have a couple of important factors working in our favor. They are ingredients which, I would suggest, every company needs to succeed in meeting its ESG goals: A thoughtful, realistic, and science-based sustainability plan in development, along with full-throated support for our initiative at every level of our organization.

Making the business case for sustainability in healthcare

Within the medtech sector, some sustainability changes involve tracing products back through the supply chain to reimagine the way those products are sourced, manufactured, packaged and shipped. Doing so is a significant undertaking – so much so, that if an organization doesn’t have a clear understanding that its sustainability goals are in line with a clear mission to improve health outcomes, it might shy away from the challenge.

Paudie O’Connor, senior vice president in charge of Boston Scientific global supply chain, points out that for that reason, it’s important to dispel myths that there is tension between the two goals. “There is no reason why we can't further healthcare to help decrease the plight of human suffering, and work to improve the environment at the same time,” he told me. 

In fact, Boston Scientific was the first medical device company to commit to carbon neutrality within its manufacturing network, as well as to receive approval for its net zero target by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), an international organization that provides clear guidance for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in line with the latest climate science. 

 Already, we’ve made progress toward carbon neutrality goals by shifting our electricity sources in the U.S. and Europe to 100% renewable electricity – contributing to 76% renewable electricity across our global manufacturing and key distribution sites – putting us on track for 100% renewable electricity worldwide by 2024 in our manufacturing and key distribution sites. All are important milestones on the path to achieving the company’s net zero emissions target across the entire value chain by 2050. 

However, some sustainability goals are more complicated. For instance, physicians and patients need medical products that are sterile, safe and reliable – and those standards are highly regulated. Now, teams must consider the environmental footprint of products at every life cycle stage, from design, sourcing, production and distribution to waste disposal and recycling. 

"We spend a great deal of time thinking about how we can structure our supply chain to support growth and environmental sustainability,” O'Connor says. “For example, thinking of ways to reduce packaging, digitize instructions for use, target sterilization practices and use strategic modes of distribution."

Shipping is a good example. Medical device manufacturers have long shipped products to their destinations by air as a matter of convenience and, importantly, speed, so that devices are always available for patients who require immediate intervention. “Our supply chain has a purpose statement: ‘delivering for patients,’” says O’Connor. “Getting high-quality products to patients when they need them.”

Rail and maritime transport are far more carbon-efficient than air transport, but take longer; for example, a product that takes four days to get from Costa Rica to Boston by air may take 14 days by boat and rail. Thus, in switching to moving products by land or sea to key distribution hubs, a company must carefully reexamine the timetables by which products are sent and adjust them accordingly. Mapping out such thoughtful, deliberate changes can result in meaningful carbon reduction, making the effort well worthwhile. 

Tackling environmental challenges for better health

This is one of the biggest challenges that the global population has faced, let alone the healthcare industry. But by viewing environmental sustainability as a step toward improving human health, the goals of both the medical community and those of global supply chain teams can come together as one. I believe that such a holistic view is precisely the way to frame the important sustainability work ahead of the healthcare industry. Dr. Stein agrees: “To reduce healthcare disparities, we can't ignore how environmental and climate changes will affect health, especially for society's most vulnerable.” 

There is so much more work to do to continue to advance our collective efforts to contribute to a healthier planet. Regulations are increasing and evolving. Customer expectations are evolving. Science is constantly evolving and changing the things that we can accomplish for our customers and patients. But the industry is making meaningful changes -- and by holding ourselves and each other accountable, we can accelerate progress and achieve more together.

This article series is sponsored by Boston Scientific and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.

Image courtesy of Boston Scientific

Kathryn Unger headshot

Kathryn Unger is Vice President, Environmental, Social and Governance at Boston Scientific. In her role, she leads the company’s global ESG vision and strategy by engaging with business leaders to define and set short- and long- term enterprise ESG goals and priorities that deliver value to multiple stakeholders.

Previously, Kathryn held several leadership roles at Cargill, most recently as vice president of North America Government Relations; and at Cummins Inc., leading its global Rail and Defense engine business. She was also a tax consultant for PwC and a teacher in the U.S. and in Colombia. Kathryn holds a B.A. in Spanish Education and an M.S. in accounting from University of North Carolina, as well as an M.B.A. from Stanford University.

Read more stories by Kathryn Unger