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Nurse Gives Second Life to Discarded Medical Supplies

Rebecca Hendren, for HealthLeaders Media, December 1, 2009

One person's trash is another person's treasure, or so the saying goes. And health systems in this country generate a vast amount of trash—a great deal of which looks like treasure to staff at needy medical centers and clinics in underdeveloped countries.

Think about the items that are thrown away in your organization every day. Extra swabs, sterile needles and syringes, soap, and other seemingly insignificant items that are taken into patients' rooms in case they are needed, but that must be discarded when patients are discharged. These supplies have not been used, but they can't be put back into supply closets or used for others patients.

So they end up in the trash, generating tons of waste in landfills and doing nothing to help reduce unnecessary medical expenditure.

But there's a better way, says Elizabeth McLellan, an administrator at Maine Medical Center in Portland, who collects these unused supplies and distributes them to impoverished towns and villages in countries across Africa and South East Asia.

McLellan has been a nurse for more than 30 years, and first identified a need to collect unused supplies when she worked as an administrator at a hospital in Saudi Arabia. She would travel to countries such as the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and India to recruit staff, where she was confronted with the reality of medical centers and clinics that had a desperate need for supplies that were commonplace at her own organization and back home in America. So she started accumulating unused medical supplies and took them with her whenever she travelled.

After returning to Maine in the 1990s, her enthusiasm grew, and two years ago, she ramped up her efforts. She met with nurses around her hospital to discuss ways the organization could recycle unused supplies. Now nurses and housekeepers gather up the unused material in bags, which they can drop off at recycling boxes that were installed at 20 different locations in her hospital.

As word spread of her efforts, McLellan began collecting material from medical centers around the state, and her stockpile soon took over her home. In September, she was able to move the supplies to a storage facility thanks to help from AAA Northern New England. When she and a group of volunteers moved the supplies from her home, it weighed more than five tons.

In the last few months, McLellan has started a nonprofit organization, Partners for World Health, to coordinate and expand her efforts and to help other hospitals around the country undertake similar endeavors.

She says there are three reasons hospitals can get behind the call to recycle unused medical supplies. First, most hospitals pay a disposal fee to get rid of trash, which is calculated based on the weight of trash generated.

"If I take 50,000 pounds of medical supplies that were headed for the trash out of Maine Medical Center," says McLellan, "that lowers their disposal fee, which decreases their expenses."

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