Medical Waste and the Rising Cost of Healthcare

big pharma

By Tara Fugate

Tara Fugate
Tara Fugate
MNA Strategic Researcher

MNA Strategic Researcher

It’s no secret that the cost of healthcare is skyrocketing in the United States. What is less obvious are the reasons driving these increases. According to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), “U.S. health care spending increased 4.3 percent to reach $3.3 trillion, or $10,348 per person in 2016”[1]. Hospital spending accounts for 32 percent of costs while spending on prescription drugs accounts for 10 percent. Although many factors contribute to constant increases in cost of care, pharmaceutical and medical waste are culprits that could be easily addressed, yet remain a significant problem for many patients, nursing homes, and hospitals.  ProPublica has undertaken a series of investigative reports on the not only rising costs of care, but the impact of various types of medical and pharmaceutical waste that are often overlooked:

Medical Supply Waste in Hospitals

Hospitals discard everything from unused catheters to ultrasound machines on a daily basis. In 2012 the National Academy of Medicine estimated the U.S. health care system wasted $765 billion a year, which adds up to more than the annual Defense Department budget. Additionally, researchers at the University California, San Francisco Medical Center recently estimated that the hospital wasted $2.9 million in neurosurgery supplies in one year. While there are a variety of charities across the country that collect these unused supplies and distribute them to developing countries, the cost of these wasted supplies can greatly increase a hospital’s overhead costs. In turn, these costs are passed on to patients.[2]

Eye Drop Overflow

The waste issue extends beyond hospitals, the pharmaceutical industry also contributes to drug waste. A joint report between ProPublica and NPR catalogs how drug manufacturers knowingly produce eyedrops that are too large for a human eye to hold. This oversizing formula extends to the production of expensive cancer drugs and other liquid medications. When the medications are dosed in oversized quantities, patients inevitably waste some of their dose yet are still responsible for the cost of what they do not use. In terms of expensive drops like those prescribed for Glaucoma, some patients fear running out before their prescription can be refilled. A smaller volume drop would be an easy solution to this problem, yet drug companies have refused to change their practices for fear of lowering their bottom line.[3]

Drug Waste at Nursing Homes

Nursing home residents are often large consumers of prescription medications. With diagnoses and prescriptions constantly changing for residents, large quantities of excess drugs are often thrown away. Iowa has come up with a creative solution to this problem that could be replicated around the country. The Iowa program is set up to retrieve drugs that would be otherwise wasted and redistribute them to uninsured or underinsured patients free of charge. In cases where drugs are not being redistributed, often times medications are getting flushed down the toilet. This presents a larger problem because flushing medications can lead to contamination of water supplies. While the program in Iowa represents a tangible solution to drug waste, it is not currently being widely replicated across the county.[4]

ProPublica and NPR are continuing to report on other aspects of medical waste and factors that contribute to rising healthcare costs in this country. Keeping ourselves informed is the first step towards rerouting our profit-driven healthcare industry towards a single payer system with a built-in entity for negotiating drug prices and monitoring pharmaceutical waste.

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