Leftover Medical Supplies Put To Use Abroad

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Supplies piled up outside McLellan's house i i

Volunteers for Partners for World Health move hundreds of bags of medical supplies out of founder Elizabeth McLellan's home. Josie Huang for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Josie Huang for NPR
Supplies piled up outside McLellan's house

Volunteers for Partners for World Health move hundreds of bags of medical supplies out of founder Elizabeth McLellan's home.

Josie Huang for NPR

Elizabeth McLellan has been a nurse for more than 30 years. But she has never been able to get over how many perfectly good medical supplies — millions of dollars' worth — get thrown out each year by U.S. hospitals.

So she started a nonprofit group, called Partners for World Health, that collects leftover supplies from hospitals in the Portland, Maine, area and ships them to clinics in developing countries.

After she and other nurses pick up the supplies, McLellan stores them in her home while shipments are prepared.

Bags are crammed in her dining room, hallway and cellar. They are stuffed with sterile syringes, diabetic syringes, insulin syringes, gloves and alcohol swabs, most of them in their original packaging — "everything you could possibly imagine," McLellan says.

Where Excess Supplies Come From

McLellan says hospitals ditch items that were once in a patient's room because of strict rules about infection control.

Other times, hospitals throw out supplies that have never even left the supply cabinet.

Don Hancock, a vice president for Premier, a company that negotiates bulk purchases for hospitals, says supplies become outdated before hospitals get a chance to use them.

"Maybe you have invested in some inventory with a physician who no longer is with you, or maybe there is a new procedure that came out that can supersede an old procedure, and you no longer need the supplies for that old procedure," Hancock says.

Dr. William Rosenblatt of the Yale School of Medicine says the waste is also a result of being cautious during medical procedures.

Surgeons order up enough drapes, sutures and gloves for worst-case scenarios. But Rosenblatt says there are always leftover items, up to a hundred dollars' worth per surgery. He doubts patients would have it any other way.

"If I was a patient in the operating room," Rosenblatt says, "I would want to know that the surgeon has immediately available not just what is going to be needed for my procedure, but also materials that are there just in case."

'Far' Better Than The Alternative

In the early 1990s, Rosenblatt formed one of the first medical supply recovery programs in the country, called REMEDY. Dozens of groups have cropped up since.

Occupational therapist Danielle Butin leads a group called Afya that ships supplies to Africa.

"An unopened pack of sutures is far more preferable to dipping gauze in alcohol, pulling the string out and turning it into sutures, which is a strategy that's employed in many developing nations," Butin says.

Back in Maine, volunteers move bags of supplies out of McLellan's house to her driveway, where they are being measured on a giant scale.

The final tally is about 10,000 pounds of supplies that will end up in countries such as Haiti and Cambodia.

There is potential for McLellan and others to collect much more. It's estimated that only 10 percent of hospitals around the country have arrangements to donate unused supplies.

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