The environmental impact of surgery: A systematic review



      Climate change is a significant public health threat. Health care comprises 10% of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, where surgery is especially resource intensive. We did a systematic review to assess and summarize the published evidence of the environmental impact of surgery.


      We searched Medline, Embase, Web of Science, and GreenFILE databases for publications that report any environmental impact measure by all surgical subspecialties, including anesthesia. Inclusion criteria were published in English, original research, and passed peer review. Because data were heterogeneous and the aim was broad, we conducted a qualitative summary of data. Where possible, we compare impact measures.


      In the study, 167 articles were identified by our search strategy and reviewed, of which 55 studies met criteria. Eight were about anesthesia, 27 about operating room waste, and 6 were life cycle assessments. Other topics include carbon footprint and greenhouse gas emissions. Nine papers fell into 2 or more categories. Overall, the operating room is a significant source of emissions and waste. Using anesthetic gases with low global warming potential reduces operating room emissions without compromising patient safety. Operating room waste is often disposed of improperly, often due to convenience or knowledge gaps. There are environmental benefits to replacing disposable materials with reusable equivalents, and to proper recycling. Surgeons can help implement these changes at their institution.


      Although there is a clear need to lower the carbon footprint of surgery, the quality of research with which to inform protocol changes is deficient overall. Our attempt to quantify surgery’s carbon footprint yielded heterogeneous data and few standardized, actionable recommendations. However, this data serves as a starting point for important future initiatives to decrease the environmental impact of surgery.
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