The term “sustainability” can mean different things based on the organization. Despite the fact that the concept has been around for decades, many misconceptions remain, from sustainability serving as just another word for “green” to it being an expensive practice/solution. In an interview with MedTech Intelligence, Ann Meitz, vice president of sustainability at 3M’s Health Care Business Group, talks about how medical device manufacturers can incorporate sustainability into product design in a meaningful way.
MedTech Intelligence: Within the medical device industry, what is the awareness level of sustainability in product design?
Ann Meitz: It varies. There are a number of medical device and pharmaceutical companies that have been active in sustainability, but for the most part their focus has been on improving the sustainability of their own operations. Knowledge about sustainability often resides in a corporate sustainability group, but the concept of sustainability may not be fully understood by departments responsible for product development.
If you consider hospitals (entities that medical device companies may be selling to), just like manufacturers, the level of sophistication of their sustainability efforts varies widely. There are hospitals that are just starting their sustainability journey and are still figuring out how to recycle. Whereas organizations such as Kaiser Permanente (KP) are leaders in this space—KP recently set 2025 sustainability goals that include becoming carbon neutral and generating zero waste. These are really bold goals!
The situation in the medical device world is similar. Many large health care companies have sustainability programs within their own operations that track energy, waste and water use, but these same companies may be just starting in their efforts to more effectively apply sustainability to product development.
MTI: What tools should companies be using to enable sustainable designs/products?
Meitz: To incorporate sustainability into a product development organization, some training is required, because people often don’t understand how to incorporate sustainability into the design of a medical device. To create a “call to action,” it is useful to help people understand the benefits of designing sustainability into a product. By helping product developers look through a sustainability lens, individuals can begin to recognize opportunities. For example: Costs can be reduced by using fewer materials; environmental impact can be minimized by selecting materials and processes that are “friendlier” to the environment; and community health can be impacted by making smarter and safer material choices. These choices can also support the mission of health care by “doing no harm.”
Incorporating sustainability within manufacturing operations is often a good place to start because it’s an easier concept for product developers to grasp. But to really generate a sustainability advantage, manufacturers must design sustainability into the customer use of the product. This is perhaps the most valuable type of sustainability advantage. If the end customer “collects” the sustainability benefit (e.g. the product generates less waste or uses less energy), then the customer may also get a financial benefit, which can enhance the value proposition of the product.
MTI: Is there a certain level of expertise is required to implement sustainability practices?
Meitz: Special skills are not necessarily required to implement sustainability on the product design front, but developers do need to learn to look through a sustainability lens. There are a number of standards (AAMI and ISO) that designers can leverage if they want to understand how to incorporate sustainability into product design.
It’s also helpful if product development teams and management ask questions about sustainability throughout the product development process. To be effective, companies should work to seamlessly incorporate sustainability it into their product development process, rather than trying to identify a sustainability benefit after the fact.
MTI: What are the consequences of not implementing sustainable practices/solutions?
Meitz: There are more external expectations regarding sustainability than there were in the past—Investors are starting to notice sustainability, and customers often ask sustainability related questions as part of bid and tender processes. A number of companies are also implementing environmentally preferred purchasing programs.
So, why not take advantage of the opportunity to start incorporating sustainability into the design of medical devices?