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Medical supply surpluses a common source of hospital waste

Oftentimes these excess medical supplies are perfectly usable when they're tossed, and can add up to about $765 billion per year.

Jeff Lagasse, Associate Editor

Much has been made about the costliness of the American healthcare system, but one factor that may be driving up medical costs is the prevalence of "medical surplus," essentially usable supplies that hospitals discard when new equipment comes in.

Oftentimes these excess medical supplies are perfectly usable when they're tossed, and according to a 2012 report by the National Academy of Medicine, they can add up to about $765 billion per year.

Some of that surplus ends up in the hands of Partners for World Health, a nonprofit organization with four warehouses in Maine. According to a ProPublica report, Elizabeth McLellan, a registered nurse who now runs the organization, arranges to have much of the equipment shipped overseas to developing nations, aided by hundreds of volunteers.

[Also: Hospitals waste millions on discarded unused medical supplies]

McLellan told ProPublica that about $20 million worth of supplies fill her warehouses. Items such as a $25,000 ultrasound machine, a $4,000 infant warmer and Covidien HET Bipolar Forceps, which run about $300, comprise part of that inventory.

These items are typically discarded when updated models find their way to the hospital, or if a hospital changes vendors. Some reach their expiration dates and are junked due to infection control regulations. Still other items, such as gloves or bandages, cannot be used in the room of more than one patient, per hospital policy.

In 2016, Partners for World Health sent seven containers overseas, adding up about $250,000 worth of discarded medical supplies. 

Twitter: @JELagasse

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