Why you should care
Because billions’ worth of usable medical supplies shouldn’t end up in the landfill.
Away from bustling downtown Portland, Maine, with its foodie hangouts and artisanal drinking holes, in a nondescript office park, sits a 15,000-square-foot warehouse stuffed to the gills with the rejects from area hospitals: unused medical supplies. I visited in the fall on a cloudy Sunday afternoon. Elizabeth McLellan, the founder of Partners for World Health, has just packed off the last of the college volunteers who came by to help at the facility on Walch Drive. A tinny radio keeps McLellan company; she is the only person in the massive building.
The wiry 66-year-old, bangles jangling, can’t sit still. She is eager to show me around. Wheelchairs, walkers, crutches, Foley catheters, needles, syringes, ventilators, glucose monitors and more occupy almost every square foot of the warehouse. With the help of volunteers, Partners for World Health, launched in 2009, sorts these sterile medical supplies and ships them to needy countries around the globe. In the United States alone, these perfectly usable supplies contribute to annual waste in the neighborhood of $765 billion — more than the yearly budget for the Defense Department. That amount of waste, according to a 2013 report from the Institute of Medicine, would be enough to pay for the insurance coverage of 150 million American workers — both the employer and employee contributions.
Usable supplies contribute to annual waste in the neighborhood of $765 billion — more than the yearly budget for the Defense Department.
The venture started when McLellan, a registered nurse and world traveler, found that hospitals in the developing world were in dire need of medical supplies. As a nursing administrator at Maine Medical Center in Portland, she obtained permission from the CEO to collect all the supplies that routinely get tossed out when a patient is discharged. Soon she had 11,000 pounds of surplus goods stored in her house.
The largely volunteer-run nonprofit eventually moved to a warehouse and expanded to its newest location in December 2016. PWH stores larger medical devices such as X-ray equipment, EKG and anesthesia machines in another 15,000-square-foot warehouse in Portland. Almost monthly, a container holding roughly 15,000 pounds of medical supplies ships out to countries in Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Shipping typically costs $20,000, paid either by the recipient hospital or organization or through fundraisers. Participating medical centers are freed from liability and benefit from a reduction in waste disposal costs.
Asked how she would use a million-dollar donation, McLellan grows starry-eyed. She would hire more staff to keep the place “humming,” she says, and proactively pay shipping costs so struggling countries that can’t afford anything at all can still receive supplies, she says.
McLellan was born in Camden, Maine, just up the shore from Portland, and grew up with two brothers and two sisters. She briefly sold costume jewelry at the Macy’s in Boston before her mother convinced her to study nursing. McLellan found she had a natural aptitude for it and made it her career. Her boundless energy led her to travel around the world, and it is this energy that Nancy Kaye thinks of first when asked about McLellan.
Kaye, who serves on the board at Partners for World Health, first met McLellan in her capacity as a board member at the Portland Museum of Art. McLellan had volunteered to help with an auction, and she hit the ground running, says Kaye, who is bowled over by McLellan’s drive and sense of purpose. A significant part of McLellan’s work involves leading volunteer medical missions to developing countries to train medical staff about new developments in the field. Kaye’s husband accompanied McLellan on one such trip to Ethiopia. When a friend asked Kaye if she was worried about sending her husband on a trip with a single woman, Kaye replied: “Elizabeth doesn’t sit still long enough for anything to happen.”
McLellan can’t afford to sit still, she says, because the size of the problem is staggering, even if the hundreds of billions of dollars wasted every year by the U.S. health care system is not all from unused medical supplies. Chloé Alpert, CEO of Medinas, a San Francisco medical marketplace exchange startup, argues that while McLellan’s purpose is a noble one, unused medical supplies can be put to use right in our own backyard. “We’re shipping billions of dollars’ worth of perfectly good supplies overseas when there’s this huge problem right on our doorstep, people who can’t afford care, smaller practices and hospitals going out of business.” Medinas is building an online marketplace for such supplies through which poorer hospitals and veterinary businesses can bid for goods they need, at a discounted price. “We’re not going to completely destroy the nonprofit model,” Alpert says, “but we can make the process more efficient and treat a kid in Oakland the same as a kid in Guatemala.”
Despite McLellan’s and Alpert’s efforts, the problem still looms large and begs the question: Why do hospitals waste so much to begin with? If medical institutions can discard their supplies so easily and without repercussions, does it not give them a free pass to continue their wasteful practices? Indeed, single-use medical supplies, overly cautious labeling of expiry dates and laws that regulate how long hospitals can hold on to expired goods, McLellan and Alpert agree, have created a perfect storm.
McLellan says she would be delighted to see laws instituted from the top down so there’s a lot less waste in the first place. That starts with increasing awareness of the problem, she maintains. In fact, as I leave, McLellan is already turning to her next project: a meeting with state government officials early the next morning.