Op-Ed: Medical supply reallocation, saving lives and the environment

Sunday, March 4, 2018 - 1:47pm


While many of us spent Spring Break sunbathing on warm beaches, visiting friends and family or  indulging in an unhealthy dose of Netflix while huddled under a mass of warm blankets, hundreds of University of Michigan students travelled to the most impoverished regions of the world to bring about positive social change. These service-oriented students witnessed, for a week, what hundreds of millions of people experience throughout their lifetimes: Ravaging illnesses, systemic impoverishment and minimal access to basic health care.

The World Health Organization cites severe shortages of sterilized needles and gloves as one of the main reasons for why 40 percent of medical injections in impoverished countries are classified as “unsafe.” Ten nations, with a combined 100 million people, have no access to any kind of cancer treatment. Even underfunded international hospitals fortunate enough to receive vaccine and medicine donations from charities oftentimes lack the basic gauze, syringes and bandages needed to administer the life-saving drugs.

Despite the United States spending over $10,000 per person on health care annually, many countries spend fewer than $10 per person each year. What does this mean? It means hundreds of millions of people rely on damaged, expired, unsterilized and unsafe medical supplies. It means millions of people needlessly die of premature and preventable deaths.

Conversely, the U.S. has a gluttony of excess medical supplies that end up as waste. The U.S. disposes of more than 4 billion — with a “B” — pounds of medical supplies each year. These discarded supplies end up in landfills, contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, increase the cost of health care and don’t go to people in need. Though a majority of disposed medical supplies are no longer usable, 13 percent of all disposed medical supplies are never used in the first place and an estimated 50 percent of single-use supplies could be safely reprocessed.

The University is not an exception to this problem. Despite an ambitious sustainability initiative to reduce University-produced waste by 40 percent from 2006 to 2025, the University is failing, and waste levels have actually increased over the past 12 years. Michigan Medicine is one of the main culprits and continues to discard thousands of pounds of medical supplies every day. Worse yet, Michigan Medicine has thrown out an estimated $180 million of pristine, unused medical supplies since 2006. In the three minutes it takes you to read this article, nearly $100 of unused medical supplies were discarded in our very own backyard.

So what can we, as students, do to address this tremendous global health disparity?

Blueprints For Pangaea is a startup, nonprofit organization founded by University students to reallocate excess medical supplies from our local hospitals to impoverished countries overseas. Since 2015, Blueprints For Pangaea shipped more than 30,000 pounds of medical supplies — valued at $2.5 million — from Michigan Medicine to hospitals in Ghana, Niger and Myanmar.

By collaborating with hospital administrators, doctors, nurses and volunteers, Blueprints For Pangaea is already making a major impact by reducing domestic medical supply waste mismanagement and by providing more accessible health care to countless people around the world. Nearly 10 Blueprints For Pangaea chapters have sprouted up across the country and are exponentially increasing the amount of medical supplies that are salvaged and redistributed from their respective universities (yes, even Michigan State University and Ohio State University).

Other University students on campus have joined the cause. Some are forging connections and providing medical supplies to doctors affiliated with medical disaster-relief organizations like the Syrian American Medical Society. Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program and pre-medical students are supporting “spring cleaning” drives in their laboratories and clinics to collect and donate unneeded medical supplies. Planet Blue volunteers are increasing awareness of waste and sustainability issues. Still, other students are using alternative spring break programs as an opportunity to fill a carry-on suitcase with life-saving medical supplies as they travel to some of the most impoverished areas of the world.

In ways both big and small, our fellow University classmates are saving lives.

Now that Spring Break is over and campus is alive with students and future leaders, we are again called to fulfill the University’s mission statement to “serve the people of Michigan and the world.” I urge you to consider what you can do this spring to combat medical supply waste here in Ann Arbor and to help save lives abroad. Do not consider this spring’s Earth Day as an event, but a target.

Between now and April 22, join a student or professional organization dedicated to alleviating international health disparities and unnecessary medical supply waste. Encourage your laboratory and clinic mentors to initiate a medical supply “spring cleaning” program if they do not already have one. Join the Earth Day 2018 movement to “End Plastic Pollution." Do your part to help the Earth and the people on it.

Geoffrey Gamm is a senior in the Ford School of Public Policy.