Waste Not, Want Not

By David Thill

MedShare collects surplus medical supplies and delivers them to countries in need.

The United States produces an estimated 2 million tons of healthcare waste a year. But opportunities exist to decrease that waste while helping healthcare providers abroad. One of these opportunities lies with a humanitarian aid organization called MedShare.

MedShare’s beginnings
A.B. Short and Bob Freeman founded MedShare in 1998 in an effort to help solve “two distinct but interlinked problems,” says Jason Chernock, MedShare’s director of programs and procurement. The first problem was that hospitals were disposing of large amounts of unused products. The second problem was that many countries around the world were in need of those items.

Short was familiar with the food bank “warehouse” model of operation, in which aid organizations collect surplus food and distribute it to front-line agencies who in turn serve it to community members in need. He decided to use this model for MedShare.

Using ocean containers – which are globally standardized and therefore allow for shipment of a variety of products to many countries – MedShare sent four shipments of supplies in its first year, says Chernock. In the 2016 fiscal year, the organization sent 156 shipments valued at over $21 million to 31 different countries, according to MedShare’s 2016 Annual Report. The report also notes that through the company’s work, almost 2.5 million pounds of supplies and equipment was diverted from U.S. landfills.

Chernock notes that MedShare has built an extensive volunteer base. With a staff of just over 40 across its three U.S. regions (Northeast, Southeast, and Western), the organization relies on the services of 20,000 volunteers in its product evaluation and inventory process.

Donation and collection
Because hospitals and health systems all have unique ways of operating, a product’s path from hospital inventory to country in need doesn’t always start the same way, notes Chernock. The consistent part of the process is that a hospital team member – whether a nurse, supply chain staff member, executive, or otherwise – takes an interest in reducing their organization’s waste output, and would like to put those surplus supplies to positive use.

Once the hospital has made contact with MedShare, MedShare’s first task is to make sure the hospital has a team member to serve as the liaison between the two organizations. After that, MedShare staff typically come to the donating unit – for example, a maternity ward or supply chain department – and conduct a 15-20-minute in-service to introduce MedShare to the staff.

During this introduction, MedShare team members specify to hospital staff what supplies they can and cannot accept, and place a MedShare-branded collection barrel in the unit. In the case of the Southeast region (which is based in Atlanta, home of MedShare’s national headquarters), MedShare staff typically return to the hospital on a bi-weekly basis to collect the barrel’s contents and bring them back to the distribution centers. The Northeast and Western region distribution centers usually wait until hospital partners notify them that the barrels are full, at which point they retrieve the contents.

In some cases, says Chernock, the hospital partner prefers collection barrels to be centrally located, rather than covering only single units. Those arrangements also work, he says.

The three-point evaluation
Products collected by MedShare undergo a “three-point” evaluation process, says Chernock. The organization’s large volunteer base serves as the “first line of defense” in assessing supplies entering MedShare’s distribution centers. These volunteers come from a variety of backgrounds and include nurses, public health officials, physicians, high school and college students, and members of faith organizations.

Their assessment involves checking supplies’ expiration dates – MedShare’s policy states that all supplies must have at least 12 months remaining in its shelf life – and making sure that supplies are packaged appropriately. They ensure the supplies are fully functional and clean, and sterile if necessary.

After the initial assessment, volunteer management staff provide a second set of eyes by making sure volunteers have filled out supply labels accurately and that the supplies meet quality standards.

Finally, inventory management staff receive the supplies and add them to MedShare’s inventory. These staff members perform “spot-check quality control,” checking for errors and anything that seems out of place, says Chernock.

Once items are in MedShare’s inventory, he says, they are sent to the warehouse and become available to order by MedShare’s overseas partners.

Biomedical training overseas
MedShare is unique in that it operates on a “pull” system as opposed to a “push” system of distribution, says Chernock. In other words, partner organizations view MedShare’s inventory online and order the supplies they need. “No one is going to know more than the administrative organization [at a healthcare facility] in Ghana or Guatemala” about what those facilities need, he explains.

Overseas partners include health networks, relief organizations, and non-governmental organizations. Chernock says that MedShare both maintains old partnerships, and continues to form new ones. (The organization also supports American relief groups doing overseas work, as well as a number of safety net clinics in MedShare’s local American regions that are in need of supplies.)

Upwards of 40 percent of donated equipment sits idle in developing countries, due to staffs’ lack of familiarity with specific types of equipment, says Chernock. “To address this challenge, MedShare’s biomedical engineering team provides training and support to all of our recipients,” he says. This team, led by Eben Amstrong, director of biomedical equipment training and repair service, travels overseas and provides end user training in equipment use. After the training ends, the biomedical team continues to be available via communication outlets such as phone, email, and Skype to answer questions from staff.

Among other partner organizations, Amstrong has provided training at Hope for Haiti’s onsite locations, says Chernock. He says that through this training, which included work in Les Cayes, the Haitian commune heavily impacted by Hurricane Matthew in October 2016, MedShare’s relationship with Hope for Haiti “has gotten a lot deeper.”

Chernock describes this sort of training as an “absolutely critical” piece of MedShare’s work. “It’s the sustainable part of what we do.”

Donating to MedShare

“If it’s used in a hospital, you can donate it to us,” says Jason Chernock, director of programs and procurement for MedShare. MedShare is a humanitarian aid organization that collects surplus supplies and equipment from hospitals throughout the United States and delivers it to health organizations overseas. With an estimated 2 million tons of healthcare waste each year, American hospitals have plenty of surplus supplies to donate.

The MedShare website provides a full list of supplies that the organization accepts. Right now, says Chernock, they are especially in need of supplies for “clean birthing kits.”

These kits provide essential items that assist mothers in having safe and clean delivery experiences when they are unable to reach a formal medical facility, explains Chernock. He adds that this is particularly a challenge for mothers in rural areas.

The core products in a clean birthing kit include:

  • A clean underpad
  • A receiving blanket
  • A pair of surgical gloves
  • Sterile gauze pads
  • A pair of mesh underwear
  • A scalpel
  • A bar of soap
  • An alcohol prep pad
  • Two umbilical cord clamps

MedShare is seeking donations of all of those items, says Chernock. Hospitals and health systems interested in donating surplus supplies can find more information, and reach out to MedShare, at http://www.medshare.org/donate-medical-supplies/.

One health system’s MedShare experience

Donna Drummond needed to find an outlet for her health system’s unused medical supplies. Drummond, a veteran supply chain manager, is senior vice president of consolidated business services at Great Neck, N.Y.-based Northwell Health.

After visiting a number of organizations, she came across MedShare. The agency’s approach – collecting supplies and equipment, cataloguing them, and allowing overseas hospitals to order them – had a “simplicity” that appealed to her, she says. She was also impressed by MedShare’s biomedical team, which provides training and repairs for end users abroad.

Drummond now sits on the finance committee of MedShare’s board, where, she notes, her previous experience as an accountant serves her well.

She encourages hospitals to donate their unused medical equipment and supplies to MedShare, whose mission and value on sustainability she applauds. MedShare, Drummond says, “is an organization that will make sure medical equipment and supplies reach those who need it.”

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