May 05, 2021

Making Nurses’ Days Easier with More Efficient Waste Management

Every year from May 6 to May 12, the nation observes National Nurses Week. Starting as an annual tradition in 1974, the designated week, ending on Florence Nightingale’s birthday, is meant to provide opportunities to honor and celebrate the critical role of nurses in society.

This past year has been especially challenging for nurses as they cared for patients amid a global pandemic. Not only have they been risking their own health and safety, but they often work in fast-paced, chaotic environments where sick patients require essential care, quickly. On top of that, these settings can sometimes be short staffed.

The nurse shortage is due in part to the aging workforce. The average age of a nurse is 51, and there are fewer new nurses currently entering the field. Moreover, burnout—an issue that has spiked with the pandemic—has caused some nurses to retire early, further exacerbating the shortage. To put this in perspective, there are around 4 million registered nurses in the U.S. today, and by 2022, we will need more than a million new nurses to prevent a worsening shortage.

Even after the coronavirus pandemic ends, nurses will still be pressed for time. As baby boomers age, there will continue to be more patients seeking treatment in healthcare facilities, particularly as people wrestle with chronic conditions that require intensive treatment.

Given the above-mentioned challenges, Nurse’s Week is an excellent time to think about how to make patient care more efficient to reduce the burden on nurses and improve outcomes for your organization. Not only is this work important for patient safety, but it can also improve the patient and nurse experience if nurses have adequate time to compassionately meet patient needs.

Simplifying Waste Management Is Key

Although there are multiple ways to increase efficiency, one area that warrants attention is waste management. There are many types of waste generated over the course of patient care, including used needles, leftover medications and packaging, as well as other types of regulated medical waste, such as contaminated gauzes, gowns, and other personal protective equipment (PPE).

The easier it is to dispose of waste safely and compliantly, the better it is for nurses. Conversely, if nurses are put in a position of having to leave the patient care area to dispose of leftover medications, this can delay them from patient care tasks and cause added frustration, stress, and risk. Some healthcare organizations may opt to simplify the disposal process for medical waste by commingling common wastes produced at the bedside like sharps and non-hazardous pharmaceutical waste.

Commingling waste means consolidating certain waste streams where possible, which helps make waste management simpler. Commingling waste should not to be confused with over classification of waste, where organizations choose to classify all waste as hazardous waste. For example, containers that allow you to commingle sharps waste and non-hazardous pharmaceutical waste (also known as non-RCRA waste) can streamline waste disposal. Non-hazardous pharmaceutical waste represents 95% of all drug waste and is mostly generated at the bedside. By capturing it in the same container as sharps, you can reduce the number of unique waste receptacles you use, thus saving wall and storage space.

Non-hazardous pharmaceutical waste should not be disposed of in a red bag for medical waste or in sharps container​s, ​since regulated medical waste may not be destined for an incinerator. Non-hazardous medication waste should be kept in containers designated specifically for incineration to prevent the possibility of those drugs ​eventually ending up in waterways. The most common method for ​sharps or regulated medical waste treatment is ​not incineration, but rather autoclaving, which involves high-pressure and high-temperature steam​. ​Such autoclaving is sufficient to kill pathogens, but would not ensure destruction of ​any pharmaceutical components that ​had been incorrectly placed in regulated medical waste.   Additionally, some states require incineration of non-hazardous pharmaceuticals.  ​For these reasons, non-hazardous pharmaceutical waste should be placed only in containers that are destined for incineration.

According to our estimates, commingling sharps and non-hazardous pharmaceutical waste can save nurses 2,520 minutes per week, which adds up to 2,184 hours per year1 for nurses to focus on delivering patient care. Potential improved outcomes from an increase in nursing time and availability include decreased rehospitalization rates and lower healthcare-associated infection (HAI) rates. 

As healthcare facilities consider implementing a commingle program, they should consider the color and ease of use of the waste containers so as not to be confused with other waste receptacles. In addition, it’s also necessary to clearly label the containers to designate the types of waste that can be disposed and determine the type (single-use or reusable), size, and location of placement to meet the needs of different care settings.

Stericycle Provides a Complete Medical Waste Disposal Partnership

To help meet the needs of busy nursing staff, Stericycle has a commingle program with compliance training from experienced regulatory and healthcare specialists, so your nurses know where to dispose of different waste types to ensure proper waste segregation and compliance with state and federal regulations.

We Owe It to Our Nurses

Nurses are a precious resource, and healthcare organizations should be doing everything they can to support them in their critical and lifesaving work. By improving the efficiency of waste management, your organization can make nurses’ lives a little easier, freeing them to focus on what they do best—delivering compassionate and comprehensive patient care.

Learn more about how Stericycle’s medical waste management solutions can help save your staff time and optimize efficiencies.

1. Assumptions: Based on 100 nurses per shift, 40% will waste meds, taking 90 seconds on average to dispose of medication in the med room 3 times in a 12-hour shift; 2 shifts per day.

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