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Ecohealth. 2013 Sep;10(3):257-67. doi: 10.1007/s10393-013-0855-1. Epub 2013 Jul 11.

An ecological perspective on medical care: environmental, occupational, and public health impacts of medical supply and pharmaceutical chains.

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College of Medicine, University of Vermont, S269 Given Courtyard, 89 Beaumont Drive, Burlington, VT, 05405, USA,


Healthcare organizations are increasingly examining the impacts of their facilities and operations on the natural environment, their workers, and the broader community, but the ecological impacts of specific healthcare services provided within these institutions have not been assessed. This paper provides a qualitative assessment of healthcare practices that takes into account the life-cycle impacts of a variety of materials used in typical medical care. We conducted an ethnographic study of three medical inpatient units: a conventional cancer ward, palliative care unit, and a hospice center. Participant observations (73 participants) of healthcare and support staff including physicians, nurses, housekeepers, and administrators were made to inventory materials and document practices used in patient care. Semi-structured interviews provided insight into common practices. We identified three major domains that highlight the cumulative environmental, occupational health, and public health impacts of medical supplies and pharmaceuticals used at our research sites: (1) medical supply procurement; (2) generation, handling, and disposal of medical waste; and (3) pharmaceutical handling and disposal. Impacts discovered through ethnographic inquiry included occupational exposures to chemotherapy and infectious waste, and public health exposures to pharmaceutical waste. This study provides new insight into the environmental, occupational, and public health impacts resulting from medical practices. In many cases, the lack of clear guidance and regulations regarding environmental impacts contributed to elevated harms to the natural environment, workers, and the broader community.

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