VIRGINIA BEACH, Virginia — While some medical supplies are considered absolutely necessary to certain people, they often remain unattainable due to the high prices. Companies have begun to find a loophole around the expensive rates in order to fill the need: Redistributing used supplies to new patients.
One benefit of redistribution is that hospitals save money by reprocessing supplies, according to the Association of Medical Device Reprocessors. Some examples include cardiac catheters ($279 new, $58 reprocessed) and orthopedic surgery blades ($30 new, $14 reprocessed).
Redistributing medical supplies also cuts down on hospital waste. In 2004, the Association of Medical Device Reprocessors were able to cut hospital waste by 935 tons. Surgical gowns, laparoscopic ports, cutting tools, pulse oximeters, compression sleeves and single-use items — unused but taken out of the package — are all thrown away on a regular basis.
Medical Supply Recycling companies have begun to form in order to make the redistribution more efficient. MedShare, REMEDY (Recovered Medical Equipment for the Developing World), IMEC (International Medical Equipment Collaborative), Advocates for World Health and HERO (Healthcare Equipment Recycling Organization) have all taken on the task of contacting medical supply companies to collect surplus supplies and ship them to healthcare facilities in the developing world.
Some physicians have taken the medical recycling to the extreme and have been harvesting from postmortem bodies before they are buried. The physicians will call funeral homes and ask if anyone has recently died who had a pacemaker or defibrillator. After getting permission from the family, they then remove the device from the body before burial or cremation, clean it, refurbish it and redistribute it to developing countries where it couldn’t be afforded otherwise.
Many patients in India have benefited from the recycled pacemakers, where by hospital standards, they would have had to pay $6,000 to $12,000 to purchase a new one.
While there are many benefits to the medical reprocessing industry, the caveats that come with it have hindered the idea’s taking off. Many of the supplies being reused are originally labeled for single use only, and even though the devices will be cleaned before redistribution, there are no regulations or protocol for cleaning them since they are not meant for redistribution.
Hospitals are not required to inform patients when reconditioned supplies may be used in surgery, leaving the patients unaware in many cases, which becomes a transparency issue.
From an economic standpoint, medical companies would rather sell new devices than used ones at lower costs. There is also the case of insurance fraud: If one person’s medical insurance paid for supplies that is now going to someone else, it can be argued that the patient receiving the supplies is stealing from the original owner’s medical insurance, which delves into a legal issue as well.
From a safety standpoint, federal records and interviews have revealed that some single-use devices have malfunctioned during their second use, although the Association of Medical Device Reprocessors counter that there are even more examples of original devices malfunctioning.
To address this, the agency has redone their framework by passing the Medical Device User Fee and Modernization Act, which states new regulatory requirements for reprocessed single-use devices. The act requires reprocessing companies to submit data proving that their products are safe for recycling.
In order to make the redistribution of medical supplies more widespread, the process needs to be regulated in order to make it safe and legal. This can be done by the FDA creating standards to follow that would allow for the recycling of devices. Although there are a few risks involved, and arguably lower quality supplies, redistribution provides benefits that overwhelmingly outweigh the risk. In some cases, the redistribution process could give people a fighting chance for survival that they would have never had before.