Hospitals could be wasting millions by discarding unused medical supplies, study finds

Surgical supplies must be used or discarded once they are opened

Discarding unused medical supplies, like surgical gloves and medications, could waste millions of dollars annually, according to a study published in the Journal of Neurosurgery.

U.S. ORs produce more than 2,000 tons of waste daily, according to James Yoon, a researcher at the University of California-San Francisco (UCSF) and study co-author. Surgical supplies must be used or discarded once they are opened.

Study details, findings

For the study, researchers examined 58 neurosurgeries performed by 14 surgeons at UCSF Medical Center.

The researchers identified nearly $1,000 in supplies per procedure that were opened and discarded without being used. The study projected that wasted supplies could cost UCSF's neurosurgery department $2.9 million annually, and that estimate could be conservative. According to the study, nurses said they were less likely to open disposable supplies when they knew they were being observed for the study.

Sponges, blue towels, and gloves were among the supplies most often unused and discarded. However, higher-cost supplies, such as sealants and screws, contributed to much of the cost of wasted supplies. So-called "surgifoam," a sponge used to stop bleeding that costs nearly $4,000, was the costliest item wasted. The study identified spinal procedures as one of the top procedures that spurs high volumes of waste.

Recommendations

Michael Lawton, a study co-author and one of the neurosurgeons examined during the study, said the savings achieved by reducing the number of discarded and unused medical supplies  "could translate into teaching and research opportunities, and also allow more patients to come in" for treatment.

The researchers recommended that hospitals focus on price transparency initiatives for surgeons.

For example, Lawton said a "feedback system" would allow surgeons to see how they compare with their peers in terms of surgical supply costs per procedure.

Looking to protect surgical margins? A physician champion can help.

In addition, UCSF is currently reviewing the list of supplies surgeons prefer for procedures to identify those that are unnecessary and let nurses know which items should be opened prior to surgery in the sterile field, versus those that should be opened in the OR.

Yoon also acknowledged that waste can be hard to reduce, as it's tough for surgeons to predict which supplies they'll need during a procedure. "We try to be prepared for as much as we can, but there are a lot of things we can't foresee and those are the occasions when waste can happen," he told Modern Healthcare (Ibarra, Kaiser Health News, 9/12; Castellucci, Modern Healthcare, 9/7).

Six strategies to engage surgeons in cost control

Engaging Surgeons in Cost Control

How much a hospital spends on surgical supplies depends tremendously on physician preferences. Whether they opt for higher-priced devices, keep hospitals from getting volume-based discounts, or use more supplies than necessary, individual surgeons can have a major impact on your bottom line.

To achieve meaningful supply savings, you must engage physicians in a constructive dialogue about their individual practice preferences. Keep reading to learn how hospitals that successfully engage surgeons in such conversations accomplish that task. You'll also get six lessons for effectively sharing cost performance data with physicians.

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