Organizations Find Cure for Medical Waste

The U.S. healthcare system discards $6.25 billion worth of medical supplies and equipment each year, but thanks to the work of a small handful of organizations, some of this waste is being redistributed and reused.

Several organizations throughout the United States, including Atlanta-based MedShare, are helping to reduce medical waste by collecting and sending usable supplies and equipment to hospitals in developing countries. An estimated 2,000 tons, or more than $200 million worth of medical supplies, go unused in the United States

MedShare, recently named one of the top 25 nonprofit organizations in the country by Philanthropy magazine, was founded about two years ago by A.B. Short and Bob Freeman. The organization works with 12 hospitals in Atlanta to collect unopened medical supplies, biomedical equipment and furnishings, and exports these items to needy hospitals overseas.

Last year, MedShare collected 30,000 pounds in medical supplies from participating hospitals, some of which only have been in the program a few months. When MedShare logs the weight of donations, it does not include the heavy furniture and biomedical equipment that many partners contribute. So, considering the lightweight items such as sutures and bandages, 30,000 pounds equals a lot of supplies.

In 2000, MedShare exported 11 40-foot containers filled with medical supplies, furniture and biomedical equipment that otherwise would have ended up in landfills. Additionally, the organization works with medical professionals who visit foreign hospitals on missionary trips to place recycled items in areas that need them. Or, when another nonprofit organization such as a church arranges to send a container to a hospital, MedShare contributes a portion of donated materials to help fill that container.

Our goal next year is to send 24 containers, two a month, in addition to the support from medical teams that are traveling overseas, Short says.

Although the items MedShare collects still are in their sterile packaging and would be perfectly acceptable for reuse in the United States, strict government regulations prevent hospitals from reusing the supplies, even in free clinics. Short explains that during surgery, nurses and surgeons open big, sterile plastic bags called surgical packs containing individually wrapped medical supplies, including syringes, gauze and sutures then place them on the surgery table.

The nursing staff and the surgeons will use what they need, Short explains, but they set up a table with the supplies they [might] need and may not use them all.

Once surgery is complete, many of the wrapped packages are never opened and still are sterile. However, hospital staffs may not use these items in future surgeries due to regulations.

Traditionally, these supplies either go in a landfill, or someone may save some of it to give to a veterinarian, Short says. It can't be used on the next patient. We provide a way to have desperately needed items sent overseas, keeping them out of landfills and incinerators.

Furniture and equipment also is a large part of MedShare's exports. The medical industry is fiercely competitive, and hospitals continuously are upgrading their technology to keep their facilities state-of-the-art. As a result, hospitals across the United States are discarding biomedical equipment and furniture that may only be a few years old.

We take furnishings such as chairs, waiting room furniture, exam tables, beds, walkers and more, Short says.

So far, every hospital that MedShare has approached with its service has welcomed the chance to reuse resources. Other hospitals, both in and outside of Atlanta, have been asking how they can participate in the program.

As the agency brings in more volunteers to help sort donated materials, it will increase the number of partners in the Atlanta area. Meantime, MedShare accepts donations from hospitals that are not on its regular rounds.

Similar nonprofit organizations exist throughout the United States. For instance, Pittsburgh-based Global Links and Dallas-based MediSend International recycle surplus medical equipment and supplies for healthcare institutions in developing countries.

In addition, many hospitals are using organizations such as MedShare as a model to build their own pollution prevention programs. For instance, BayCare, a group of 11 nursing homes and hospitals in Tampa, Fla., has been talking to MedShare about testing the company's model for one year. BayCare, part of Catholic Health East, a larger hospital system throughout the East Coast, will collect the materials and ship them to MedShare for processing and export.

We will try this for a year with BayCare and see how it works, and then talk about expanding the model in the other hospitals, Short says.

It is important to make recycling easy when working with hospitals, he says. Despite the fact that MedShare currently has more donated materials than hands to sort them, the organization does not require hospitals to sort the items themselves. Instead, the organization has placed receptacles with sterile liners in various hospital locations. Once a surgery is completed, the staff discards the unused supplies into the receptacle, and MedShare collects the materials weekly.

If we asked hospitals to sort these items themselves, they might not participate, Short says. You have to make it easy, convenient, and then you have to be 100 percent reliable and responsible. If you say you are going to be there weekly, you have to be there weekly.

For more information on creating pollution prevention programs in hospitals, visit www.medshareinternational.org, www.medisend.org and www.global-links.org.