In this era of shrinking reimbursements and unrelenting scrutiny of hospital spending, maybe it's time your institution stops throwing away perfectly good surgical tools.
A recent study by Johns Hopkins, published last month in the World Journal of Surgery, tries to drive that point home. Researchers tracked donations of 19 high-demand, yet unused surgical items to hospitals in Ecuador over a three-year period. Extrapolating those numbers across 232 U.S. surgical centers with similar caseloads, authors estimate that some 2 million pounds of materials, worth about $15 million, are wasted each year.
One of the biggest causes of such a surplus is the practice of bundling surgical tools — i.e., gauze, disposable syringes, sutures, surgical towels — to boost efficiency and readiness. Oftentimes, study authors note, surgeons end up discarding unused materials in the bundle. Richard Redett, M.D., lead investigator for the study, pegs this as "low-hanging fruit" that hospital leaders should be targeting to find savings and dramatically impact outcomes in other countries.
"I don't think they'd be surprised by the numbers because there's a fair amount of waste in hospitals, but this is the first time it's ever been quantified and we've realized how much it is," Redett, who is also a pediatric plastic and reconstructive surgeon at Johns Hopkins Children's Center, told me by phone last week. "Hospital leaders can look at this as an opportunity and say, 'Hey, this is a lot of money, and we should do something about it.' "
Surgeons often have their noses to the grindstone treating patients, and can easily lose site of this issue. So, Redett suggests that supply chain leaders, as well as operating room nurses, should take the reins in addressing this issue in hospitals. He works in the OR four to five days a week and had no idea that Johns Hopkins was discarding upwards of 10,000 pounds of unused materials a year.
It's certainly possible for hospitals to use their orphaned items if they're sterilized properly. Johns Hopkins, for one, reprocesses tourniquets and several other items when they were previously discarded. Researchers, however, are using the study results as an opportunity to urge others to ship those supplies to struggling surgery centers in other countries. Tracking outcomes for 33 Ecuadorian patients treated with donated items, authors note those subjects averted eight years of disability per patient.
"Such programs are acutely needed not only to help address serious needs in resource-poor settings, but also to minimize the significant environmental burden at home institutions. This really is a win-win situation," Eric Wan, co-author and recent Johns Hopkins University grad, said in a press release about the study released last week.