In their new viewpoint article, published in the journal JAMA Surgery and titled, “The Surgical Suite—A Field Laboratory for Sustainability”, incoming fourth-year McGill MDCM students Sébastien Belliveau and Morgan Gold focus on the use of plastic Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in surgery, and the environmental impacts the practice has.

The pandemic served as the inspiration for this initiative, when Sébastien was walking around the first spring after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and  saw surgical masks everywhere on the sidewalk from the snow melt. “I thought, ‘something has to be done about this,’” he says.

“Masks, drapes, caps and gowns, even gloves, these things that we kind of conceive as inherently disposable in the current healthcare system, we are trying to advocate to almost do a little bit of a backtrack to earlier generations of PPE, to use more reusable if not biodegradable items. A modern twist on the reusable framework for this protective equipment”, explains Sébastien.

“With the current climate crisis, we all need to be looking for ways to contribute, to try and lighten the load that we are putting on the environment. In the article, we use a classic framework: reduce, reuse, recycle, and then we add a fourth – rethink, to try and give ideas to move forward,” adds Morgan.

The students’ research findings showed promising results for reusable PPE, including identifying that some hospitals in the US have switched to reusable surgical gowns. In one specific hospital, doing so over a one-year period resulted in savings of $60,000 and reduced their waste by 23,000 kilograms. “So, there is both an ecological but also a financial reason to move towards reusable PPE,” notes Morgan.

Regarding the writing and submission process, this was a novel experience for both students, as they were essentially unsupervised. “This was my first time submitting a paper without a supervisor, it allowed us a lot of our own creative and more autonomous view on the work. Personally, I learned a lot from this experience on how to go about each step,” says Morgan.

“Moving forward as academics and healthcare practitioners, Morgan and I are already thinking of new ideas of how we can further explore this topic, to try to make an actual change in the healthcare system in Canada,” concludes Sébastien.

“The Surgical Suite—A Field Laboratory for Sustainability” was published on August 17, 2022 in JAMA Surgery.