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Waste Not Want Not

nurse with thermometer
Haitian hospitals are so impoverished that patients must often go to the pharmacy to buy their own supplies before doctors can treat them. Donations of even the simplest items -- like a thermometer -- are welcomed.
American hospitals are charter members of our throw-away society. How one small organization bucks the system -- and saves lives.

Each year, operating rooms in U.S. hospitals throw away about 2,000 tons of perfectly good medical equipment and supplies, much of it unused. And that's just from the ORs, which contribute only a fraction of the total waste stream that pours out of our medical facilities. Hazardous -- or "red bag" -- waste goes into incinerators, where it spews out cancer-causing dioxin and other toxic substances. The remainder is dumped in landfills.

In 1989, a Pittsburgh woman named Kathleen Hower, who had worked for several years in hospital administration, came to the perfectly reasonable conclusion that this was absurd, a reflection of the perverse logic of the American health care system. In a litigious society, hospitals are hostage to their fears of liability; hold on to one item that's a day past its expiration date, and if something goes wrong (regardless of whether that item was to blame) you're likely to find yourself facing a crippling lawsuit. Cognizant of this, manufacturers stamp items with conservative use-by dates, reinforcing a culture of built-in obsolescence. Companies compete furiously for lucrative hospital contracts, and Hower had seen firsthand that when a supplier is changed, everything from the old supplier --everything -- must be junked. Parts for equipment are not interchangeable; service contracts lapse.

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George Black has reported from five continents, chronicling civil war in Central America, the democracy movement in China, and climate change in countries from Bangladesh to Peru. His most recent book, Empire of Shadows, is about the 19th century exp... READ MORE >