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Unused medical supplies tossed in the trash and the cost passed on to you

Picture this: A warehouse the size of a middle school gym, filled to the brim with unopened boxes of surgical sutures, bandages and other medical supplies – all brand new and all thrown away by a local medical facility.

Marshall Allen, a reporter for the investigative journalism organization ProPublica, wrote about this Maine warehouse and the enormous problem of medical waste for the Washington Post. This waste is a huge factor in the high costs of health care.

The National Academy of Medicine estimates the health care system wastes about $765 billion a year. Saving just half that amount could provide groceries for every household in the U.S. for a year, Allen writes.

Hospitals don’t appear to track what they waste compared to what they donate, Allen found, but he did discover that when hospitals change vendors for a new supply or take over a new facility, they often just toss the old stuff, even if it’s still perfectly usable. And operating rooms are particularly wasteful. One hospital tracked the value of unused neurosurgery supplies: $2.9 million worth of goods for just one type of surgery for one year.

One hospital tracked the value of unused neurosurgery supplies: $2.9 million worth of goods for just one type of surgery for one year.

Medications are another huge source of waste, from eyedrops made too large for what your eye can absorb to cancer drugs in vials that are also too big. Allen cites the story of one drug company that switched its cancer drug from a multiuse vial to a single use, meaning it could not be shared, resulting in an estimated additional cost of $1,000 in waste per patient infusion. Drugs just tossed in the trash!

Where does it go?

Charities have organized to put the supplies to good use in developing countries. In Iowa, government started a program to collect discarded medications – another huge source of waste – from nursing homes and donate them to patients who need them for free.

Allen cites a Gallup poll that found the high cost of health care is people’s No. 1 financial concern. And medical waste is clearly a huge factor.

What do you think about the issue of medical waste? Share your comments with Voices.