SCARBOROUGH, Maine – After serving as a nurse for more than 30 years, Elizabeth McLellan experienced firsthand the enormous amounts of waste that hospitals produce. Among the items thrown in the trash were millions of dollars’ worth of medical supplies, in perfectly good condition. Compelled to put these supplies to good use, McLellan started Partners for World Health, a nonprofit group that salvages excess medical equipment and sends it to clinics in developing countries.
Hospitals, clinics, nursing homes and doctors’ offices in the U.S. are required to comply with strict sanitation rules. Any items that enter a patient’s room must be thrown away, in order to avoid contamination and the spread of infections.
It is also commonplace for doctors to order extra supplies for surgeries and medical procedures.
“[Patients] want to know that the surgeon has immediately available not just what is going to be needed for [their]procedure, but also materials that are there just in case,” said Dr. Williams Rosenblatt of the Yale School of Medicine.
These rules and practices result in thousands of pounds of wasted materials. Sterile syringes, tongue depressors, needles, wound dressing supplies, tourniquets, gloves and surgical gowns are all sent to the landfill unused. Even equipment such as wheelchairs, crutches and hospital beds get discarded in good condition.
McLellan began salvaging medical supplies in 2009, storing them in her home until they could be sent overseas to clinics in need. McLellan’s mission has since grown, becoming the only organization that provides not only medical supplies, but also a medical mission program.
Based in Scarborough, Maine, Partners for World Health is now staffed by 5,000 volunteers and fills an entire warehouse with recycled medical tools from hospitals in the area.
These supplies are delivered by PWH volunteers and associates to more than 20 countries including Cambodia, China, Costa Rica, The Dominican Republic, Ethiopia, Ecuador, Ghana, Haiti, India, Libya, Nepal, Pakistan, Peru, Romania, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Thailand, Togo, Vietnam and Zimbabwe.
In each of these countries, a hospital representative communicates the specific needs of the local doctors and ensures that the supplies reach the appropriate clinics and medical offices. These unused materials are a great improvement upon the traditional improvisational methods of needy hospitals without new medical tools.
“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 said.
Although groups such as Partners for World Health and Afya, a similar group run by occupational therapist Danielle Butin, also exist, only an estimated 10 percent of U.S. hospitals arrange to donate unused supplies.
Hospitals need to realize that recycling medical supplies is a win for everyone: it reduces waste, lowers hospital disposal fees and improves the health of people in impoverished areas around the world.
– Grace Flaherty
Sources: NPR, Partners for World Health