Hospitals in the United States are wasting millions of dollars’ worth of sterile and unused medical supplies, practices that impact the cost of healthcare, as Marshall Allen reported for ProPublica in March 2017. The type of equipment that gets thrown away ranges from simple items like surgical masks that cost just over a dollar each, to more expensive equipment such as $4,000 infant warmers or even $25,000 ultrasound machines. These wasted supplies add up, accounting for a significant amount of a hospital’s operating costs which Americans pay for through higher healthcare costs.
Marshall Allen’s report cited a University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) study focused on UCSF’s own medical center. In its neurosurgery department, the study found almost $1,000 in wasted resources per patient, accounting for nearly $3 million in estimated annual costs. Notably, many doctors in the UCSF study were unaware of the costs of discarded medical supplies. In response to the study’s finding, UCSF established incentives to reduce unnecessary waste, resulting in savings of more than $800,000 per year.
All US hospitals follow infection control policies that often leave little choice about what to do with supplies left in operating rooms after surgery or unused items left in patients’ rooms after patients are discharged. Due to strict waste management guidelines, the waste will most likely end up in an incinerator rather than a landfill. As ProPublica’s report noted, this kind of waste occurs all over the country, despite the existence of nonprofit organizations that accept unused medical supplies as donations and ship them to international medical facilities that are in need.
For example, the organization Partners for World Health has been collecting discarded supplies, filling shipping containers, and sending them to hospitals in desperate need of the supplies, in countries such as Greece and Syria. In 2017, the organization sent seven containers of medical supplies valued at $250,000 each. These supplies included everything from sterile needles to ultrasound machines.
Although facilities that receive donated supplies eventually make use of them, the discarded equipment still accounts for millions out of the donating hospitals’ operating budgets, increasing the cost of healthcare. And this is all happening while poorer hospitals in rural areas of the United States are unable to afford the high-quality medical supplies that big hospitals are discarding.
Topical and industry-focused news websites, including Healthcare Finance and FierceHealthcare, covered the story, but these outlets target healthcare professionals instead of the majority of the healthcare-purchasing American public. The Washington Post published an article, written by the original author of the ProPublica report, Marshall Allen, in its “PostEverything” section. It’s important to note how the Post presented Allen’s article. PostEverything is an online-only opinion section that hosts content from contributors who are not regular Post reporters. The Post chose not to publish Allen’s article in print form, and the outlet framed it as “opinion,” despite the factually-based hard-hitting ProPublica report on which his article was based. Although the Post version still communicated the scope of the issue, it did not have the impact of the original ProPublica report. In March 2017, U.S. News & World Report also published an article based on the ProPublica report.
Marshall Allen, “What Hospitals Waste,” ProPublica, March 9, 2017, https://www.propublica.org/article/what-hospitals-waste.
Student Researcher: Blane Erwin and Alyssa Hain (North Central College)
Faculty Evaluator: Steve Macek (North Central College)