By BECKY GILLETTE / Hattiesburg Business Today
HATTIESBURG — Prior to 2000, most hospitals in the U.S. had medical waste incinerators, often on site. That included Forrest General Hospital. Then the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ruled that all hospital incinerators in the U.S. had to either be shut down or be upgraded — something that could cost millions of dollars — by September 2000, Forrest General started looking at alternatives to solve their medical waste disposal needs.
In September 2000, Forrest Health, the operating company for Forrest General Hospital and its other related entities, launched CleanEarth, a subsidiary which established a Rotoclave® facility in north Hattiesburg to use steam to sterilize medical waste. Douglas A. Jones, chief operating officer, Forrest Health, said heat is used to sterilize the waste, which is then ground up into small pellets for disposal in a landfill.
“The original idea was to use it for our facilities,” Jones said. “But a single Rotoclave® can service a lot of different facilities. So we applied to the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) for a solid waste disposal permit that allowed us to accept waste from other facilities. We received that permit in July 2002.”
CleanEarth added a second Rotoclave® in 2002 that expanded capacity and allowed it to become a regional provider for medical waste disposal.
“Since then we have grown to currently picking up from 363 customers,” Jones said. “Those include hospitals, nursing homes, physician offices, dental offices, dialysis clinics and public school clinics. We also have voluntary drop-off sites for people like diabetics who have sharps and other medical waste that needs to be disposed of.”
Jones said an advantage of the Rotoclave® over other types of autoclaves is the Rotoclave® is continually rotated through the process to make sure all the waste is evenly treated and sterilized.
CleanEarth serves two markets, one that disposes of waste picked up from CleanEarth customers and the other for disposal of waste from other medical waste haulers. CleanEarth’s radius includes Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and the panhandle of Florida.
Jones said CleanEarth has been able to expand by focusing on customer service, availability and low cost while operating under the guidelines of the MDEQ.
Jones said having its own waste disposal operation allows Forrest Health, which is publicly owned, to save money.
“It is something if I had to contract with another medical waste disposal company, we would have to pay more for,” Jones said.
Jones said the current system is more environmentally friendly and easier to maintain than incinerators used in the past. What they dispose of is medical waste.
“We don’t do pharmaceutical waste and chemotherapy waste,” Jones said. “Those type of hazardous wastes fall under stricter regulatory controls.”
CleanEarth uses two types of waste containers: 96-gallon reusable carts and 4.5 cubic foot disposable cardboard boxes. The smaller disposable boxes are for small facilities. The 96-gallon carts are for facilities that produce large amounts of waste and also have adequate storage space for the carts. The 96-gallon carts can be locked to prevent spills or unauthorized access. These carts are designed to be connected to allow one person to transport multiple carts throughout a facility. After emptied, all carts are thoroughly washed and disinfected.
It is unusual for a hospital system to branch out into medical waste disposal. Forrest Health is also unique in that it has grown to now encompass multiple hospitals in the region. Small hospitals can struggle to keep their doors open, and linking with a larger hospital system can help them sustain operations.
“Being a part of Forrest Health provides an opportunity to make those hospitals more efficient,” Jones said. “They are able to do a lot of things they wouldn’t be able to do on their own such as implementing electronic health records. We also provide more expertise and oversight to those hospitals. We reach out and help them with services that are needed.”
Forrest Health hospitals include Highland Community Hospital in Picayune, Walthall General Hospital in Tylertown, Jefferson Davis Community Hospital in Prentiss and Marion General Hospital in Columbia. Forrest Health also operates a 60-bed nursing home in Prentiss, and recently opened the 12-bed Asbury Hospice House in Hattiesburg. Forrest Health also operates home health care and hospital service in 19 counties.
“Forrest General is also unusual in it is linked with the Hattiesburg Clinic, a large multi-specialty group practice with about 300 physicians,” Jones said. “You don’t see that combination that often. Where you do, it helps the organizations to be very successful. One example is that Forrest General and Hattiesburg Clinic share common electronic health records. The helps provide continuity of care. You are not having to look two different places to get your record or access your information.”
Forrest General Hospital originally received tax revenues from the county, but quit accepting tax revenues in 1963 and has been self-sustaining ever since. Currently the hospital has 545 beds.