Hospitals in the US are wasting millions of dollars as they discard sterile and unused medical supplies, practices that impact the cost of health care, as Marshall Allen reported for ProPublica in March 2017.
The organization Partners for World Health has been collecting discarded supplies, filling shipping containers, and sending them to hospitals in desperate need of the supplies, in countries such as Greece and Syria. In 2017, the organization sent seven containers of medical supplies valued at $250,000 each. These supplies included everything from sterile needles to ultrasound machines.
All US hospitals follow infection-control policies that leave little choice about what to do with supplies left in patients’ rooms after they leave or in operating rooms after surgery.
Due to strict waste management guidelines the waste will most likely end up at an incinerator rather than in landfill. Working machines are discarded when hospitals upgrade and surplus supplies get thrown away. In 2012 the National Academy of Medicine estimated $765 billion was wasted by the health care system—which is more than the budget for national defense—and, in 2016, a University of California-San Francisco study estimated that UCSF’s own neurosurgery department wasted $2.9 million in unused medical supplies each year.
Notably, many doctors in the UCSF study were unaware of the costs of discarded medical supplies. In an effort to reduce waste, UCSF established incentives to reduce unnecessary waste, resulting in savings of over $800,000 a year. With current debates over the Affordable Care Act, a focus on minimizing medical waste could have significant impacts on medical costs for patients.
As for corporate media coverage of the story, the topic of medical waste was most prominent overseas, especially in countries with national healthcare systems. In the US there is been little coverage of the topic in the establishment press A New York Times article from 1996 addressed the issue, including how unused US supplies were being collected and sent overseas. At the time, researchers at Yale University estimated that $200 million was being wasted in discarded unused medical supplies. In 2011, Zara Aziz, a general practitioner in England, published an article in the Guardian addressing waste in the UK’s National Health Service. She identified waste of unused equipment, expensive hospital contracts, and training those unable to find work as areas where costs of health care could be reduced.
Source: Marshall Allen, “What Hospitals Waste,” ProPublica, March 9, 2017, https://www.propublica.org/article/what-hospitals-waste.
Student Researcher: Alyssa Hain (North Central College)
Faculty Evaluator: Steve Macek (North Central College)