If you’ve spent much time in a hospital, you’ve probably noticed piles of medical supplies everywhere you look. But you might be surprised by the hidden waste behind the stacks of butterfly needles, rolls of gauze and myriad other tools that make a hospital tick.
A ProPublica investigation has revealed shockingly profligate waste in the U.S. health care industry, and that’s not good for anyone — except the hospitals in developing nations that receive discarded medical supplies from charities that attempt to mitigate the waste.
There are many reasons why hospitals throw out perfectly usable supplies, like single-use items that haven’t expired yet or used medical equipment that’s in good working condition, if a little old.
One is the very real desire to adhere to the law and hospital policy – regulations that aim to limit the spread of infection, for example. Thus, equipment that might be contaminated is discarded — even if it’s not, or if it could be cleaned to address the concern. Likewise, when patient rooms are cleared, the supplies left in the room are just tossed, rather than being restocked. For people in the ICU who may have rooms littered with packages of gauze, tubing, needles, sterile saline and other supplies, that can add up very quickly.
In surgery, strict infection protocols also tend to facilitate waste as well. While the desire to keep surgical tools scrupulously sterile is well-founded — patients have better outcomes when surgeons use sterile equipment — some hospitals go a little overboard. Once something has been brought into the operating room, it may be discarded after a procedure, even if it wasn’t used. And that’s a major problem when expensive disposable surgical instruments are involved.
Historically, all of these materials went straight into the garbage, posing some environmental and health concerns. Medical waste can be bulky, and sometimes needs special handling. Needles and scalpels require bulky sharps containers, for example. First hospitals are using the resources needed to make these supplies, and then they’re tossing the implements without even using them — even if they’re not expired or contaminated.
This practice is also expensive. Supplies can be a big part of hospital overhead, so patients — and their insurance providers — are covering the cost of goods purchased, but not used. In light of this, some advocates are pushing hospitals to be more conscientious about training surgeons and other personnel in how to reduce waste and cut down on costs for the facility without compromising patient care.
ProPublica reports that people concerned about hospital waste started putting out bins to collect usable discards so they could be redirected to facilities in need. In developing nations, hospitals have trouble keeping supplies in stock and often engage in potentially dangerous activities like reusing needles and other supplies because they need to provide care with what they have.
Some hospitals and clinics in the U.S. — including in the prison system — also struggle to get by on much less, while their wealthier, larger counterparts cavalierly toss useful products.
To combat future waste, it will be critical to modify practices like how supplies are bundled for surgery, how patient rooms are cleaned and prepared for their next occupants and how facilities handle the phase-out of old products. Sometimes supplies need to be discarded because they’re contaminated or dangerous — as for example when hospitals convert to safety needles from older models to protect health care providers and patients alike. At other times, they could safely be phased out as new products are brought in.
And don’t worry: Medical charities that distribute supplies would be delighted to stop handling hospital waste. After all, the process eats up a lot of time, as personnel have to inspect, sort and package the materials. Much like the hospitals they received donations from, it would be easier for them to make bulk purchases from medical supply companies, buying exactly what they need — and no more.