Hospitals’ wasted supplies may contribute to growing costs

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Hospitals that reduce their overhead costs on wasted supplies could help drive down overall healthcare costs.

Healthcare costs in the U.S. continue to skyrocket, but one overlooked area for savings is the millions of dollars in medical supplies and equipment that go to waste.

Elizabeth McLellan, a former resident nurse, now runs Partners for World Health, a nonprofit that collects such waste, much of which is still safe for use, and distributes it to providers in countries like Syria and Uganda, according to an article from ProPublica. It’s a high-value enterprise; last year, Partners shipped off seven containers, each worth $250,000.

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Many of the items are donated by hospitals and other providers to Partners and similar organizations that have cropped up in recent years. There are varied reasons supplies may be discarded before they expire or are contaminated. A health system may change vendors, for example, or unused supplies left in patients’ rooms are discarded under infection control guidelines.

These unused supplies may not be billed directly to patients, but do contribute to a hospital’s overhead costs, which leads to increased costs for all.

Corinna Zygourakis, M.D., the chief neurosurgery resident at the University of California at San Francisco and the lead author of a study on wasted surgical devices, said there is limited research on the cost impact, but if it was studied more closely, hospitals may not like the results.

“It’s not nice to say, ‘Hey, look at the amount of money we’re wasting,’” Zygourakis told ProPublica.

The study at UCSF found that close to $1,000 in supplies were discarded in each of the 58 neurosurgeries it examined. The surgical teams opened a variety of devices for each procedure, just in case a surgeon may need them, and they later end up in the trash because they’re no longer sterile, the researchers discovered, Zygourakis said.

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ProPublica noted another area of the healthcare industry that could use the supplies discarded by large hospitals are smaller, rural facilities. Brock Slabach, the National Rural Health Association’s vice president for member services, said that donations from wealthier hospitals could help their rural, cash-strapped brethren stay afloat.