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Hospitals could be forced to reconsider billions of dollars worth of wasted supplies

The United States is the nation that spends the most on health care. Many people are unaware that much of this money is wasted.

Research has shown that every year, between US$760 and $935 billion are wasted due to overtreatment, ineffective coordination, and other failures. This amounts to about one-quarter of the total U.S. healthcare spending. This includes medical supplies and equipment. According to one study, on average, almost $1,000 worth of unused supplies is wasted during each neurosurgery operation.

The pandemic, with hospitals under financial stress due to COVID-19 and medical waste at even higher levels, could finally cause a needed reset in the way healthcare organizations and hospitals think about waste-related supplies. This includes the way they reuse supplies, plan surgeries, and look for prepackaged surgical products.

Reusing and decontaminating supplies safely

Not all disposable equipment and supplies can be considered safer. Reusing, cleaning, and sterilizing equipment is not only safer but also cheaper in the long term. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, for example, points out that surgical tools such as forceps and clamps are able to be reprocessed and used. However, they are usually thrown away following a single usage.

The new sterilization methods are helpful. N-95 masks, for example, that were sterilized with ethylene oxide or vaporized hydrogen peroxide retained their filtration efficiency of more than 95%. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s approvals for hospitals to clean certain disposable items may become a safe and effective way to reduce waste.

Operating rooms are the largest source of hospital waste. Thierry Dsogne via Getty Images

Reusing personal protective equipment would not only help reduce waste, the environmental impact of production and delivery and save money but also improve healthcare organizations’ preparedness for future pandemics.

How to reduce waste in the operating rooms

The operating room is a major source of hospital waste. Over half of hospital revenue and 25% of expenses are accounted for by operating rooms.

The average cost of supplies and materials in an operating room is about half the operating room budget and 70 percent of the 4 billion pounds in health care waste generated in the United States each year.

The majority of this waste is caused by a mismatch in the supply requested versus what’s actually required during surgery. The surgeon submits a physician’s preference card listing all the reserves they believe they will need in the operating rooms. In a study we conducted, my colleagues found that frequent updates of these preference cards can reduce unplanned expenses.

Unplanned costs in the operating room average about $1,800 for each surgery. This adds up to tens and tens of millions of dollars. These costs include supplies that have been opened but are not used and supplies that were brought in for surgery to make it more difficult to manage collections. As the frequency of updating the physician preference cards increased, we found that waste and costs initially increased but then decreased as surgeons narrowed down the supplies they actually needed. This can result in a cost saving of millions of dollars per year.

Understanding how supplies are wasted can be helpful. After surgeons at a San Francisco-area hospital received information on their use of supplies and were encouraged to reduce their waste, they reduced their supply waste by 6,5%.

Rethinking the packaging and working with suppliers to reformulate medical packs could reduce waste. Surgical bags are often used to store supplies in the operating rooms. These surgical packs contain items that are needed for a procedure but may not be used.

Recycling – a major step up

Hospitals can increase their recycling. In 2018, a survey of four Mayo Clinics across the United States found that single-use plastics made up at least 20% of medical waste. More than 500 hospital employees were surveyed. 57% of them didn’t have a clue about what items could be recycled in operating rooms. 39% either recycle occasionally or never. And 48% said that the biggest barrier to recycling is “lackadaisical knowledge.”

Only 15% are hazardous. Packaging materials and gloves make up the remaining 85%. The gloves worn for the inspection of a non-infectious patient can be reused.

A pandemic that has raised awareness about the waste of supplies in health care may be a catalyst for a new look at supply chain management. This can be beneficial to patients, hospitals, and the environment.

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Jane S. King

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