On a Thursday morning in May I arrived at the MedShare warehouse in San Leandro, California. This is one of two warehouses filled with medical supplies and equipment. The second one is in Decatur, Georgia. What I’m looking at is material that would otherwise be in landfills across the country. As a manufacturing geek, I feel right at home in this warehouse with racking, forklifts, bar coding, computer entry, shipping docks and a container poised for loading. After the tour and instructions, I get to work sorting and re-boxing.
MedShare has been operating since 1999 and diverts on average 2000 pounds of medical surplus each week. They have shipped over 900 containers to 93 medically underserved countries including Kenya, Haiti, Costa Rica and Ecuador. They also provision hundreds of medical teams who serve in these countries and provide free supplies to safety-net clinics in California and Georgia. This web of suppliers, volunteers, bio-medical experts and logistics professionals works to lessen the medical disparity around the world.
Our medical system in the US is, on its own, very wasteful. A surgical procedure will draw in pounds of material in kit form in the name of hospital efficiency, and then whatever is not used, will be tossed. The piles of waste include, masks, needles, surgical instruments, gowns, bottles, bandages, and gloves. MedShare is a non-profit that will accept that waste material, sort it, repackage it when necessary, label it accurately, store it and then ship it to order. Hospitals from developing countries are able to look online at MedShare’s database to determine what is available. They “shop” to fill up a container. Assuming that there are funds available to pay for the shipment, they get what they need. This is in contrast to other charities that ship what they have, when they have it. Often what is shipped does not meet the needs of the people and sits unused. Not so for MedShare shipments.
In addition to excess medical supplies, MedShare takes in, refurbishes and ships out medical equipment such as surgical tables, ultrasound machines, scales, lights. Again, in the US medical world these items are obsolete but for a developing country they are seldom seen luxuries. There are wonderful stories of medical intervention that would not have been possible without MedShare equipment and supplies.
But what does MedShare NOT have readily flowing?
- Cardboard boxes – Volunteers bring in boxes from home. MedShare has to buy boxes that they can’t get donated.
- Sponsored containers – It costs about $20,000 to ship a container to its destination. Companies can sponsor a shipment and can advertise this donation both in the US and in the receiving country. For a company expanding in the developing world or even partnering with suppliers in that region, it is a very inexpensive way to build positive brand awareness.
- Volunteers – They welcome volunteer groups from companies, churches and youth groups. You can show up as an interested individual and they will put you to work.
- Funding – Money is very efficiently put to good use either to fund the very low administrative costs or to pay for the container shipments.
- Regional expansion – MedShare plans to expand this year by adding another warehouse location in the east. The numbers make it clear that this is a good strategy. Healthcare Without Harm claims that U.S. hospitals generate more than two million tons of medical waste each year, most of which is medical supplies and equipment. The World Health Organization estimates that more than 10 million children under the age of five die in the developing world due to inadequate medical care. MedShare is serving a critical need and is only scratching the surface with its fifty plus tons a year.
The efficiency of this charity has been celebrated with awards and recognition. MedShare is a four star charity in Charity Navigator. They have been featured on TV and in print. There are numerous testimonials online. However, for all of its success, it should be better known than it is. Maybe, for some, it is not so glamorous. After all, this is a process of matching supply and demand. It is a non-profit that deals with inventory management, transportation costs and material handling. The demand fluctuation has a lot to do with global forces such as economics, natural disaster and incoming funds. In short, the job done at MedShare is a job that many of us in supply chain management will recognize. The supply chain community should resonate with this charity and its work.
My morning was spent sorting, labeling and boxing and having a blast. The volunteers I worked alongside were smiling, chatting and one even burst into song. Halfway through, we took a break and watched a container load finish up. This one was funded by the MedShare’s own Western Regional Council. The stories told by Chuck Haupt, the Executive Director for the Western Region, were stirring and motivating. In fact, the volunteers themselves are raising money to ship a container, just going to show how compelling the work really is.