ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Hospitals throw away millions of dollars every year in the form of unused supplies. Well, Josie Huang of Maine Public Radio reports on how health care workers are finding a new home for those supplies overseas.

JOSIE HUANG: Elizabeth McLellan has been a nurse for more than 30 years, and she still can't get over how many perfectly good items hospitals throw out. So she and other nurses in Portland, Maine, go around to nearby hospitals, packing up supplies to give to health clinics in developing countries.

Ms. ELIZABETH McLELLAN (Nurse): I think there's a light switch over here somewhere.

HUANG: McLellan is storing hundreds of bags in her home. They're in her dining room, the hallway, the cellar, and they're stuffed with supplies, most of it in original packaging.

Ms. McLELLAN: Sterile syringes, diabetic syringes, insulin syringes, gloves, alcohol swabs, everything you could possibly imagine.

HUANG: McLellan says hospitals ditch items that were once in a patient's room because of strict rules about infection control. Hospitals also get rid of items that never even left the supply cabinet, like these catheter kits she's collected.

Ms. McLELLAN: And they were going to throw it all away. Probably about $5,000 worth of supplies were going to be thrown away in the trash.

HUANG: There's a reason for that, says Don Hancock, a vice president for Premier, a company that negotiates bulk purchases for hospitals. He says supplies become outmoded before hospitals get a chance to use them.

Mr. DON HANCOCK (Vice President, Premier): 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 could supersede an old procedure, and you no longer need the supplies for that old procedure.

HUANG: Dr. William Rosenblatt of the Yale School of Medicine has studied why so many supplies go unused. 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.

Dr. WILLIAM ROSENBLATT (Professor of Anesthesiology and Surgery, and Yale School of Medicine): If I was a patient in the operating room, 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.

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

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

Ms. DANIELLE BUTIN (Founder, Afya): 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 the strategy that is employed in many developing nations when they don't have sutures to use.

HUANG: Back in Maine, volunteers move bags of supplies out of Elizabeth McLellan's house to her driveway, where they're being measured by the pound on a giant scale.

Unidentified Man: Thirty-five, 24.

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

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

For NPR News, I'm Josie Huang in Portland, Maine.

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