Squandering supplies: Hospitals could trim costs by cutting medical waste

It's healthcare's dirty little secret. Every year, tons of unused disposable medical devices and supplies and equipment that could be recycled are tossed into the trash. Consider it money down the drain.

But a new movement is afoot to reduce medical waste, according to the New York Times.

More than 1,000 hospitals and 80 companies belong to Practice Greenhealth, a nonprofit group based in Reston, Va., that is trying to help shrink the environmental footprint of healthcare institutions. Belt-tightening hospitals looking for ways to cut costs should also be open to cutting waste by going green. One way is to recycle disposable single-use medical devices. A few reprocessing companies will take your disposables, including orthopedic drill bits and heart-monitoring catheters. After cleaning, recalibrating, repackaging and resterilizing them, the reprocessor sells them back to hospitals and medical suppliers for 40 to 60 percent of the original price.

After an operation, the OR wastebasket may be full of equipment that's been barely or never used. Unused devices may have come from sterilized surgical kits that were opened for an operation but were tossed, because they were no longer sterile.

Before the 1980s, most medical devices were made of durable metal, glass, or rubber and could be disinfected and reused countless times, according to the Times. In the 1980s, the industry shifted to single-use versions, often made of cheap plastics. Fears of a spreading HIV epidemic further reinforced a growing trend toward disposables.

But the pendulum may be swinging back again, away from single-use devices. More than half of U.S. hospitals send some of their single-use devices to reprocessors, according to the Association of Medical Device Reprocessors.

Original-equipment makers understandably want to protect their market for single-use products and warn that it's unsafe to recycle devices designed for only one use. But a GAO report in 2008 found that available data suggested that reprocessed disposables are not linked to any additional health risks. Despite some concerns about the safety of using reprocessed devices, many organizations support using reprocessors. Some doctors want to resume the old practice of relying on permanently reusable equipment. "We're just trying to undo a lot of the damage we've done," Dr. Rafael Andrade, a general thoracic surgeon at the University of Minnesota Medical Center in Fairview told the Times.

To learn more:
- read this New York Times article
- read this commentary from Academic Medicine

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