Saturday, August 6, 2011

Salvaging Medical Cast-Offs to Save Lives

... Dr. Bruce Charash ... is the founder of a Brooklyn-based organization called Doc2Dock, which collects surplus medical equipment from hospitals in the United States and ships it to hospitals in poor countries.
Every year, hospitals in America throw away thousands of tons of usable medical supplies and equipment — by some measures 7,000 tons a year, a value of $20 billion.   The 2006 model ultrasound machine is sent to a landfill because the 2011 model has arrived.   Unopened, sterile packages of supplies are thrown away because they were marked for one patient’s surgery and hospital regulations prohibit their use by another.Yet every year, hospitals in developing countries around the world turn away patients or provide substandard care because they lack even the most basic medical equipment.

For many problems in the world, a solution already exists — somewhere else.  In those cases, what’s needed is a way to connect supply with demand.   Sometimes it’s buyers and sellers — potential customers in wealthy countries are interested in the jewelry and crafts made by indigenous artisans; the Worldstock market at is one way to bring the two together.  It can be lenders and borrowers —, for example, connects people with small amounts of money who want to make microloans with people who need, say, $100 to buy chicken feed in Uganda.  Last week’s Fixes columns by David Bornstein showed the value of a systematic way to connect social services to those who need them. In a familiar version of the model used by Doc2Dock, food banks collect usable surplus food from restaurants and banquets and deliver it to pantries for the hungry.  In fact, A.B. Short, the co-founder and chief executive  of MedShare, one of the largest of the surplus medical supply groups, used to work for the Atlanta Community Food Bank.

Often what’s required is just to move money or information.   That’s relatively easy.   It’s a much bigger challenge to get a mammography machine no longer needed by a hospital in Atlanta to a hospital in Ecuador.   You have to collect the equipment, check to make sure it’s in good condition, store it somewhere, pack it into a container and put it on a boat, get it through customs when it arrives and ship it by truck to the hospital.   You also have to make sure the hospital needs a mammography machine, enjoys consistent electricity and has personnel trained to use the machine.

Doc2Dock is one of several organizations that do this work.  The biggest ones are Project C.U.R.E. in

There is plenty of room for growth.  Only a small percentage of hospitals have some organized way to deal with surplus equipment and supplies.   Donating surplus goods is intrinsically attractive to hospitals — and it reduces the tonnage they must send to landfills.

Hospitals are not the only ones who donate.  MedShare gets 65 percent of its cargo from manufacturers or distributors of medical equipment and supplies.   A small puncture in a carton may mean that a box can’t be shipped to a paying customer, even if the supplies are still individually wrapped and sterile.

The surplus supply groups collect the donations at a central warehouse, where armies of volunteers — sometimes classes of high school students — sort and pack them.  They are bar coded and stored.    Doc2Dock has only a small warehouse in New York, but Wal-Mart picks up the cost of shipping the rest to its warehouses in Tennessee and stores it there....
MedShare is a regular supplier for the network of surgical hospitals for children with disabilities in Africa run by CURE international.  ... The shipments save CURE several million dollars a year, and allow it to get more sophisticated equipment than it would otherwise buy –making possible  more and more advanced surgeries.
by Tina Rosenberg
The New York Times
August 4, 2011
Fixes looks at solutions to social problems and why they work.
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