How to Increase Sustainability in Veterinary Practice

For Earth Day 2023, have you considered how you can improve sustainability as a veterinarian?

There's no escaping that healthcare—veterinary or human medical practice—has a significant environmental impact. The good news is you can take steps to reduce your impact while maintaining patient safety and high standards of veterinary care.

Whether you're already part of a 'green' team, have an environmental policy at your practice, or are just starting on your veterinary sustainability journey, here's how you and your team can help protect the environment.

3 Ways to Reduce Your Environmental Impact as a Veterinarian

While you may not be able to make a sustainability impact overnight, consider taking these steps to a more sustainable future as a veterinary professional.

1. Switch to Low-Flow Anesthesia or Change Anesthetics

Discuss and encourage your veterinary team to use low-flow anaesthesia to reduce waste gases, which are potent greenhouse gases, and avoid using nitrous oxide altogether. Additionally, plan ahead and make prompt decisions to avoid prolonged or unnecessary anaesthesia and decrease the amount of waste gases. One hour of isoflurane anesthesia for a dog is equivalent to the greenhouse gas effect of driving 20-40 miles in an average American car.

Use volatile agent-sparing drugs and techniques, including appropriate premedication and analgesia, when possible, such as boluses, partial intravenous anesthesia, or regional/local anesthetics. Consider using sevoflurane rather than isoflurane. While it's a less potent anesthetic agent than isoflurane, it has a significantly lower greenhouse gas effect and a lower global warming potential. Regularly check and service your anesthetic machine, vaporizer, and breathing systems to check for leaks or performance issues that could increase waste.

2. Consider the Carbon Footprint of Your Veterinary Operating Room

Due to the environmental effects of anesthesia, large volumes of waste, and single-use plastic, operating rooms have high carbon footprints. But taking daily steps to decrease your operating room's footprint can help.

A study in the Journal of the American College of Surgeons found that reusable fabric scrub hats had superior performance in terms of microbial contamination compared to disposable hats. So, reusable surgical textiles may have a beneficial impact on patient standards while having a lower environmental footprint.

A study in AORN Journal provided evidence that reusable textiles have a significantly lower environmental impact. It found that, compared to disposable gowns, reusable gowns reduced natural resource energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, blue water usage, and solid waste generation. Opting for reusable drapes for certain clean, elective procedures may help reduce waste without compromising patients' health. All of these efforts are great steps in supporting climate action.

Using scrub brushes is no longer recommended, so switch to an alcohol hand preparation after an initial hand wash at the beginning of the day. This method is more effective than traditional scrubbing techniques and saves water.

3. Use Antibiotics and Medicines Responsibly

Antimicrobial resistance is among the most significant and pressing health challenges affecting humans and animals.

Therefore, while preserving animal health and welfare, consider reducing antimicrobial use in the animals under your care. Avoid unnecessary antimicrobial use, including routine group prophylaxis or defensive prescribing. Base prescribing on culture and sensitivity diagnostics where appropriate. Give special focus to reducing the use of antimicrobials like fluoroquinolones and 3rd+ generation cephalosporins, which the World Health Organisation classifies as 'highest priority critically important.'

Sustainable solutions to prevent disease and protect animal health and welfare—such as improved husbandry and management, vaccination, and proactive health planning—can replace the use of antimicrobials where possible.

Refine your use of medicines by ensuring you're responsibly selecting and administering products to animals who have a clinical indication for treatment. Use diagnostic testing, ensure compliance, and provide pet owners with advice to mitigate environmental harm associated with necessary treatments.

Veterinary Professionals' Role in Promoting Sustainability

Veterinarians take an oath for 'benefit of society through the protection of animal health and welfare, the prevention and relief of animal suffering, the conservation of animal resources, the promotion of public health, and the advancement of medical knowledge.' In addition, consider the animals not committed to your care—those who suffer as a consequence of human activity or those you may be unintentionally impacting in pursuit of optimizing your patients' health, welfare, and productivity.

As a veterinary professional, you're in a unique position of understanding human, animal, and environmental health. You're a powerful agent of change as you have many spheres of influence: personal, household, communities (through workplaces, associations, etc), as well as in society in general. People are more open to hearing information from trusted professionals. As a professional, you have scientific knowledge, good communication skills, and local communities' trust and regard, which you've earned and developed through the service you've given. This makes you—and all members of the veterinary industry—uniquely placed to advocate a more sustainable, healthier future, by attending to climate action, antimicrobial stewardship, and responsible resource use.

Laura Sullivan

Laura Sullivan qualified from the Royal Veterinary College in 2009 and is an experienced small animal veterinary surgeon. In practice, she has performed various roles, including associate veterinarian, locum veterinarian, and clinical director. Alongside her clinical work, entrepreneur Laura is on a mission to help veterinary and healthcare professionals become more sustainable. She founded 'All Scrubbed Up Scrub Hats' - a small business creating bespoke eco friendly, reusable scrub hats for the veterinary, dental, and healthcare heroes of the world. The views and opinions in this piece are the authors own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of either The Vetiverse or IDEXX.

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