I became aware of the acute lack of essential medical supplies when I participated in medical missions work in the Philippines and Honduras. Basic supplies like gloves were often not available. If they were available, they were washed, hung up to dry, and used again and again. Other equipment—tubing, dressings, bowls, basins, drapes, sutures, instruments—almost everything—was lacking.
One of the Philippine health clinic in the poor area, a recipient of the medical supplies.
Many of the supplies discarded here the U.S. can be invaluable assets in other countries. Recycling unused not needed medical equipment and supplies is a win/win for everyone. It keeps these supplies out of landfills. The hospital or institution receives tax benefits under IRS section 170 (e)(3), and the supplies go to poor countries where they are desperately needed. Nonprofit 501 c 3 charities throughout the United States collect these supplies and ship them in 40-foot containers by ship to clinics and hospitals in developing countries all over the world.
I want to give you resources to start or become part of a medical supplies recovery/recycling program at your hospital, institution, or long-term care facility. Yale University Medical Center, where I work, has developed a comprehensive medical recycling program. It has a comprehensive medical supplies recycling outreach program (remedyinc.org) with teaching packets and other resources available to you and your hospital administration.
How it works
Let me give you some examples of how the program works at my hospital. When the hospital changed from latex to nonlatex gloves, the latex gloves that were removed from the units and the boxes of latex gloves that could not be returned to the distributor were collected and sent to a local charity that specialized in shipping this equipment to the third world. Hospital wide, this came to thousands of pairs of gloves that would have been thrown away-now were sent to developing countries.
Another example: A new designed syringe with a flip needle guard to prevent recapping the needle. When this was introduced there were thousands of the older style syringes with the nonprotected needles on the units. Again, these could not be returned to the distributor, they were sent through our local charity to countries where they were so desperately needed.
When crash carts and other prepared carts come off the floor for restocking, many items near expiration are removed as they may expire before the cart is needed for use. These items are collected and sent.
When the hospital purchased new, larger wheelchairs there were many older wheelchairs in need of repair. These were sent to the nonprofit organization, Joni and Friends. The wheelchairs this organization obtains from institutions and individuals are sent to participating prisons where they are repaired, rebuilt, and sent to third world countries, and distributed to the handicapped, who desperately need them. A win/win for everyone: the wheelchairs are kept from landfills, prisoners participate in an activity where they can learn skills and feel the value of helping others, the handicapped receive a free wheelchair that can change their life.
Many expired items are needed in poor countries, especially the poorer countries that lack the most basic equipment. Periodic audits of stock and supply room on units and storage areas often result in large quantities of supplies that are expired or will expire in the near future. Most of these items still have much value, and most non-profit recovery charities want them. Many go to the poorest countries where the need is so acute.
Gloves and syringes are the most requested medical supplies in the third world.
Many times the operating room is opened and prepared for a case that is cancelled. The drapes, blue surgical towels, dressings suture , bowls, basins, suction tubing, instruments and so much more are just discarded. It is these basic supplies that are lacking and so needed in the poorest countries. Receiving charities are eager to obtain these items and will take them unsorted. Many have staff and volunteers that can sort through these items knowing where they are most needed.
These delivery kits contain items opened but not needed items from OB units (pair of gloves, bulb syringe, two cord clamps, a blue towel, a baby blanket, and a scissor.)
Central supply divisions of the hospital or health care facility play a key role in securing and managing supplies. In our hospital the staff of central supply play a vital role in the acquisition of supplies to be donated. Our central supply department has an area where they save the supplies, and our local receiving charity picks them up on a regular basis. Central supply departments know what items are being discontinued, changed, or expired. The majority of the donated supplies come from these departments. I encourage anyone reading this to check with his or her central supply department and see if they are involved in a recycling program.
We also obtain equipment from schools. Equipment used for teaching purposes often becomes outdated by advances in technology. This equipment is often in very good condition as it has not been used daily for patient care. Much of this equipment is needed in the third world. Here are some examples of some equipment that was donated and was sent. MA 1 respirators, IPPB machines, C Pap machines, equipment that at one time was cleaned and re used, now disposable, hospital beds, teaching aids, exam tables, and much more.
It’s not just hospitals that can participate in sending supplies overseas. Throughout the U.S., nursing homes and extended care facilities are faced with the disposal of medical supplies when a resident either dies or has change in health status. Most of these supplies cannot be returned to distributors, even if they are still in unopened boxes. Supplies like incontinence supplies, respiratory therapy supplies, dressings, crutches, wheelchairs, ostomy supplies dialysis supplies, diabetic supplies and many other supplies that are used in the care of the elderly. Many families do not know what to do with these supplies, and find it consoling that they can be donated and sent to the poor. In fact donating the supplies and clothing (many organizations ship clothing to poor countries) often becomes a tribute to the life of their loved one.
A feeling of pride
There is a very positive effect with the staff who participate in the recycling effort. They know that through their efforts they are making a difference in the lives of many who are less fortunate. They are proud to work for institutions that participate in these programs. Administration is supportive of the medical recycling effort. Concerns they have are addressed in the “legal” section of the Remedy teaching packet.
Our hospital is proactive about being environmentally friendly and has our “Green Team” committee meets monthly. Its members started a recycling effort throughout the hospital that helps employees recycle everything from batteries to electronics and computers. They are involved and supportive of the medical supplies recycling program and have been very helpful in disseminating information to departments throughout the hospital. We have “Earth Day” each year and invite representatives from the various recycling companies to participate. The local medical suppliers that received the donations have displays and pictures of the medical supplies we sent and how they were used to serve the poor.
Medical supplies sorted and ready to be sent overseas.
If you want to help
To locate a charity in your area, go to. www.charitynavigator.org. On the home page in large print you will see Find a Charity That You Can Trust. Click on the “health” category below, then click on “international” located on the left of the screen. When that window opens, enter your state and location, and the charities near you will show. Only larger charities are listed on the site; there are many others, many that might be close to you, that send supplies to the poor. The larger charities are often aware of them and can refer you. Many churches ship supplies to their outreach programs in the third world. My specialty is finding groups that need specialty equipment. If you have difficulty locating a receiving charity please email me at email@example.com and I will help you.
Robert Hitzler, RNC, is a staff nurse in labor and delivery at University Hospital, Cinncinati, OH.
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