World Health Day: HDA’s Commitment to a More Sustainable, Resilient Supply Chain

April 07, 2022

The World Health Organization has estimated that more than 13 million deaths around the globe are due to avoidable environmental causes stemming from climate change. Accordingly, this year’s World Health Day (April 7) theme is “Our Planet, Our Health,” which focuses on the political, social and commercial decisions that affect the environment as a factor in human health. The public and private sectors each can do their part on this front — and HDA believes that healthcare distributors have an important role to play in the health of the planet when it comes to delivering medications sustainably.

The healthcare sector is a significant consumer of resources in the U.S., comprising nearly 20 percent of the total national GDP annually, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. And as Drs. Victor Dzau and Rachel Levine, together with George Barrett and Sir Andrew Witty stated late last year in The New England Journal of Medicine, improving the carbon footprint of the entire health sector can drastically lower the approximately 8.5 percent of U.S. carbon emissions for which it is responsible. This is why the distribution industry has joined the National Academy of Medicine’s Action Collaborative on Decarbonizing the U.S. Healthcare Sector. As a member of the Steering Committee and a co-lead of the Health Care Supply Chain and Infrastructure Working Group, I’ve seen our member company executives get involved by providing direct counsel to support this work — through the Action Collaborative and through HDA. This type of public-private sector coordination is critical when it comes to effecting change.

We have seen distributor members set their own internal goals and take active measures to address climate concerns. One member company has, for example, installed solar panels at one of its distribution centers, making a total of eight of its facilities around the world to have such panels, resulting in an estimated carbon emission reduction of 27,941 metric tons to date. Another member has set a goal of seeing a 50 percent reduction in their greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Further, some members have publicly stated their commitment to be carbon neutral by 2050, if not sooner.

In alignment with our industry’s purpose of providing safe and reliable healthcare product deliveries, some HDA distributors have undertaken widespread efforts to reduce greenhouse emissions by reducing and enhancing transportation routes, which include centralizing, aggregating and shifting deliveries in collaboration with partners. And given the industry’s top-notch technological expertise, some companies have sought to enhance overall sustainability by moving more data from energy-expending servers and optimizing existing data centers; one member now does most of its computing in the cloud.

Additionally, distributors have invested considerable funding and resources into leveraging alternatives to fossil fuels and reducing energy use at their warehouse facilities through LEED-certified design standards, contracts with renewable energy providers, and retrofitted warehouses with more carbon-neutral equipment and infrastructure. Further, some HDA members have committed to sustainable packaging and waste management. For example, one of our member companies recently announced a partnership with a technology company to offer the world's first self-refrigerated, cloud-based shipping box. This digital shipping box features cloud-based temperature reporting, GPS location tracking and return-to-sender technology — a significant shift from the the current industry standard for transporting temperature-sensitive medicine, which includes single-use ice packs, Styrofoam and cardboard. Examples of member company initiatives to reduce packaging waste also include using plant-based cold packs for distribution of temperature-sensitive medicines, landfill diversion programs, device reprocessing, and the recycling of used and outdated furniture at their offices.

As climate change has contributed to an increase in natural disasters — climate and weather-related disasters have increased five-fold over the past 50 years, according to the World Meteorological Organization and UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction —  HDA and its members are continuing to foster supply chain resilience in the wake of these events. We have witnessed how disruptions in the supply chain have impacted patients’ lives by affecting the flow of lifesaving medicines in areas where these disasters have occurred. The logistics expertise of our members has enabled continued access to these vital medicines thus far; our industry is preparing for a forecasted uptick in these crises and stands ready to respond as these events increase in frequency.

To enhance the healthcare supply chain’s response to emergent threats, the distribution sector has partnered with the U.S. government to optimize the maintenance and deployment of the Strategic National Stockpile. Additionally, HDA has offered feedback and support to legislation issued by the U.S. Senate, the Prepare for and Respond to Existing Viruses, Emerging New Threats, and Pandemics Act (PREVENT Pandemics Act), a bipartisan effort to build stronger national medical preparedness and response systems.

Understanding and answering the call to the climate crisis in a sensible way demands that industries look holistically at where they contribute to causes and how they can minimize their impact. At HDA, we are working diligently with our member distributors to discuss and address such issues. We also acknowledge that change requires leadership from individual companies — and we continue to remain supportive of our member distributors’ efforts to address climate change as it relates to the health of patients.

HDA is proud of our members’ efforts toward the focus of this year’s World Health Day to “keep humans and the planet healthy.” Our members continue to make significant strides as they take on initiatives aimed at reducing the distribution sector’s carbon footprint. It is part of our industry’s continuing commitment to reliably and safely deliver vital medical products to providers — and ultimately, save patient lives.