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Hand-Me-Down Supplies

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A Web site helps match donated medical equipment with impoverished hospitals and clinics.

Nearly 25 years ago, William Rosenblatt, MD, committed a blunder that wound up shaping his career. On a medical mission in Peru, Rosenblatt was treating a young man dying of tuberculosis in a primitive jungle hospital. Rosenblatt used a breathing bag, but the man died. Because sterilizing the bag was impossible, it had to be discarded. “It was the only device of its kind in the clinic,” he recalls. “The director was furious with me. We had wasted this piece of equipment on a man who had died.”

After returning to the United States, the anesthesiologist contemplated the amount of medical equipment wasted that could be diverted to good use in developing nations. He formed a program called REMEDY--Recovered Medical Equipment for the Developing World--at Yale University School of Medicine in 1991 to promote the donation of unused surgical supplies and other equipment to needy nations. “We have a vast amount of single-use items wasted every day in every OR in the United States.” says Rosenblatt, who estimates the value of discarded items amounts to be more than $200 million annually.

Serving as a donation clearinghouse, REMEDY now works with some 600 hospitals that donate equipment to 800 charities that distribute the items to healthcare organizations internationally. For several years, the program used an e-mail system to alert registered charities when donated supplies became available. But that technology proved cumbersome, says Tammy Young, the group’s executive director. Sometimes e-mails were returned, and it was hard for recipients to keep track of available items. Two years ago, the group launched a Web site called Med-Eq to facilitate the donations. The site (www.med-eq.org) is loosely modeled after e-Bay, letting hospitals post available items that are then requested by the charities. Since the site launched, it has matched more than 300 donated items with charities, Young says. “Everything from a box of surgical gloves to an ambulance.”

The charities receiving the supplies pay for the shipment of goods, Young explains. “It is a highly competitive market among the charities,” she adds, noting that many posted items do not stay active on the site for long. When a new item is donated, REMEDY sends out an e-mail alert to its list of qualified charities. REMEDY works to ensure that the requesting charity is able to use the product and will easily be able to retrieve it. “If three organizations have requested an item, and all are suited for it, the first one in line will get it,” she says.

Donors include hospitals, corporations and occasional physicians who are retiring, says Rosenblatt. “Someone will take virtually everything in their office,” he observes. The project is supported by grants. However, it may turn to a fee-based model in mid-2008 to help defray costs, Young says.  
—Gary Baldwin

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