Opting Out’ of Medical Snail Mail Can Boost Your Karma (and Maybe Save the Planet)

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— We can’t shrug off environmental responsibility just because we’re doctors

by Eric Dessner, MD

July 9th, 2024

A photo of an overflowing mailbox.

Even though I’m probably just average at best when it comes to being environmentally conscious, I still envision myself cruising into heaven via the express lane. Convertible top down, wind in my hair. No waiting. Angels waiving me through the pearly gates without any scrutiny. How does this square? How can I reconcile the fact that I’m willing to plunk a plastic straw into my iced coffee every morning and still expect to proceed expeditiously through the pearly gates?

Well, it’s because I’m a physician and a healer — of course! I know, I know: what hubris. And I don’t even practice pediatrics or neurosurgery, or a specialty worthy of such impunity. I’m just a community-based ophthalmologist (who will probably never publish even so much as a case report).

Maybe my math is flawed, but this is how I explain away my lazy attitude. After a lifetime of healing people — in my case fixing their eyeballs — I will have earned some karmic credit to help bolster my resumé. Shouldn’t that compensate for my inconsistency separating plastics and cardboard from the rest of my garbage at the recycling receptacle, especially if I’ve also been a relatively kind human being?

Joking aside, the point I’m trying to make is that I know I can do better. Physicians and healthcare workers can do better, too.

We can’t shrug-off our responsibility to environmental issues just because we have a vague sense that our vocation has a net positive impact on the planet and humanity. It’s not OK to ignore climate change just because we cardioverted an arrhythmia or stymied a gangrenous march beyond the confines of a pinkie toe.

The good news is that there’s a relatively simple elixir. All we have to do is gaze into our perpetually overflowing mailboxes with a sense of awe and start asking some serious questions.

Why is it that we are constantly bombarded with mail that we can’t remember subscribing to? Where does it all come from: the constant deluge of specialty journals, continuing medical education course offerings, and pharmaceutical advertisements? And why is so much of it wrapped in plastic? TIME magazine and Sports Illustrated don’t come wrapped in plastic. I get it, Ocular Surgery News, you don’t want me to miss the insert about the latest and greatest glaucoma eyedrop, but isn’t there another way to ensure that your marketing materials reach their intended audience?


An estimate from Heal the Planet suggests, “Junk mail produces more than 51 million metric tons of greenhouse gasses every year — which is equivalent to 9 million passenger cars.” Meanwhile, the Sierra Club says that between 80-100 million trees are used each year to produce junk mail alone.

And don’t even get me started on the plastic. The plastic used to wrap magazines is made of low-density polyethylene (LDPEs) — it is considered one of the most difficult types of plastic to recycle and often ends up in landfills or the ocean. Some experts believe that only 5% of LDPE actually ever get recycled.

So how do we opt out? How can we stay more vigilant?

Whenever we subscribe to a Healio or Vindico, sponsored continuing medical education podcasts or learning modules, it appears our contact information is shared across a wide network of affiliates. For example, after I created a Healio account to watch a 20-minute glaucoma podcast, my mailbox became inundated with no less than 10 affiliate publications. Some of them promote conferences and CME opportunities. All of them include marketing materials wrapped in plastic. By checking your account settings on these websites, you can unsubscribe from print or digital mail.

If you do decide to attend a meeting in person, be cautious about “scanning your ID badge” with every pharmaceutical or medical device representative that you may bump into. I suspect (unconfirmed…) that the badges are linked to our email and home address and therefore, leaves our mailboxes exposed and vulnerable.

And how about this suggestion? When a pharmaceutical rep inevitably requests your signature in order to leave you some samples, ask them what your signature will be used for. Does it provide consent to send marketing information to your home or office?

Another more general approach is to just try and unsubscribe from bulk mail by visiting the Data & Marketing Association website, which is listed on the Federal Trade Commission’s consumer advice page. For a $5 processing fee you can customize your opt-out preferences. The registration fee is good for a 10-year period. The non-profit corporation seeks to reduce, but not completely eliminate, the quantity of promotional mail that you receive.

This may not seem like the “sexiest” fight, but it’s still important. The healthcare community is a highly targeted audience. The prescriptions we write and the medical devices we favor have huge financial implications. Marketers are willing to spend enormous sums of money to ensure that we see what they are promoting, without regard to the environmental consequences.

Besides, the truth is that I have a better chance of using these plastic wrapped periodicals to protect my tabletop from chicken vindaloo sauce splatter than actually reading them.

And I need all the help I can get with regard to my heavenly resumé.

Eric Dessner, MD is an ophthalmologist in Brooklyn, New York.

He is CEO and founder of  Medmic.com, a platform for healthcare workers to express their artistic talents.d

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