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Solving the Problem of Medical Waste

In 2012 the National Academy of Medicine estimated the U.S. health care system wastes $765 billion a year in discarded medical supplies – items such as unused bandages, tubing, and syringes, older-model ECG machines, wheelchairs, and baby warmers. On the other hand, in developing countries, over 10 million children under the age of five die from inadequate medical care every year – children who could benefit from this otherwise usable “medical waste.”

 This is where Decatur, Georgia-based nonprofit MedShare comes in: Since its inception, the organization has collected over $207 million worth of medical supplies and equipment. In 2016, according to a 2017 article in Pro Publica, “MedShare … sent 156 containers of discarded medical supplies to developing countries … each one worth as much as $175,000.”

MedShare’s challenge is that delivery of goods to medically underserved communities is based on donations, and thus the nonprofit has no control over the types of products it receives from hospitals and corporations. Additionally, MedShare serves recipient hospitals or health care organizations in nearly 100 countries, increasing the challenge of figuring out what should be sent where.

For example, said Can Zhang, different locations may need different equipment: “A maternal care hospital will need more baby warmers than will a hospital focusing on primary care.” Zhang is a recent graduate of Georgia Tech’s Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISyE) and is now an assistant professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.

“In this particular case,” Zhang explained, “the traditional supply chain approach of matching supply to demand doesn’t work. As a result, about 70 percent of the donated equipment ends up wasted, because they are not actually usable, or the items are inappropriate for the beneficiaries.”

Working with ISyE George Family Foundation Early Career Professor Turgay Ayer, and Dunn Family Professor Atalay Atasu and Brady Family Chair in Management Beril Toktay in the Scheller College of Business, Zhang developed a model whereby MedShare solicits “wish lists” from the recipient organizations. These groups rank needed products in order of priority, and then MedShare matches their medical product inventory to these lists. MedShare has implemented the model.

Zhang is working to further refine the matching process. Whereas in previous years, MedShare focused on quantity – the number of containers they shipped out – the nonprofit now wants to focus on quality – how many people they serve and how many lives have been improved. This shift in emphasis, Zhang said, will require more detailed measurements of welfare improvement in developing countries.

As the No. 1-ranked graduate program for industrial engineering, ISyE attracts many highly qualified Ph.D. students. Zhang is a standout, having won numerous awards for his research with MedShare (see sidebar). “I am highly motivated to work on problems that have a social perspective, especially those that concern unmet needs and underserved populations,” he said.

Recent ISyE Ph.D. student Can Zhang. Zhang is now an assistant professor at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business.
The High Cost of Medical Waste
Can Zhang has won numerous awards for his research with MedShare.
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