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Report calls for end to ‘sick waste’ of NHS equipment

12:00am | & Health

The NHS could save a startling £128 million per month by increasing its efforts to recycle and reuse health equipment such as crutches and walking frames.

That’s the claim of a new report published by the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) which calls on NHS Trusts across the country to focus on cutting waste and plough the money saved back into healthcare.

Titled “Less waste, more health: A health professional's guide to reducing waste”, the report looks at many ways in which England’s 165 NHS Trusts could reduce waste and reuse or recycle resources to save vital funds. Better waste management would also significantly reduce the NHS’s ‘carbon footprint’ – the negative impact it has on the environment – and the report contains several examples of ‘best practice’, where individual Trusts are setting good examples.

One area highlighted in the report is how the NHS reuses health equipment loaned to patients, once they no longer need it. A few Trusts have set up schemes which encourage patients to return equipment such as crutches, walking sticks, walking frames or commodes once they no longer need it. Some actively ‘track’ the equipment to make sure it is returned. This equipment is then checked, cleaned and made available for other patients to use. Only equipment which is damaged. Excessively worn or considered risky to reuse is scrapped.

However, most NHS Trusts do not operate such schemes and instead issue brand new equipment every time it is needed. Patients are advised not to return the equipment, even when they no longer need it, and to keep it or dispose of it themselves. Equipment which is returned is simply thrown away, with many Trusts saying it is too costly to check and deep clean used equipment, or that it could be risky to reissue it to other patients, especially if it carries a risk of infection.

The RCP report states that: “In healthcare there has been a significant move towards single-use equipment, in order to minimise cross infection risks.” It adds that the Government’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) “advises against reusing single-use items because the necessary processes to deem the item ‘safe and fit for intended purpose’ again cannot be guaranteed”.

However, the report says that while patient safety should not be compromised for financial reasons, there are significant opportunities “to reuse medical items that don’t have direct patient contact or implications”.

It cites the example of NHS West Suffolk, which launched a ‘health equipment amnesty’, encouraging local people to hand back NHS equipment which was no longer needed. In a single month more than 8,500 items were returned, including crutches, adjustable wheeled frames, commodes and air mattresses. Some items were relatively low value, such as crutches which cost the Trust £12.70 per pair, but there were lots of them so the value soon added up. Other items cost a lot more, such as air mattresses at £1,650 each.

After launching the amnesty scheme, the Trust’s Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) realised savings of £608,500 per month. According to the report: “If all CCGs achieved similar results, £128 million worth of equipment could be recouped.”

At the moment, far too much NHS equipment is simply never returned (with no expectation that it will be) or is thrown away because it is easier than checking, cleaning and reusing it. A recent investigation by The Daily Mail called it “a sick waste” which is costing taxpayers millions. It included photos of equipment such as crutches, seats, walking frames and wheelchairs piled high in a skip, apparently destined for scrapping.

The article also quoted former Health Minister Dan Poulter MP, who said: “There is no reason why walking aids, crutches and other equipment cannot be cleaned and reused.” He called on NHS Trusts to ditch their unconditional single-use policies and instead re-examine their processes for reusing equipment to cut costs.

● You can download the 14-page “Less waste, more health” report and read it in full by clicking here. The Daily Mail report can be found by clicking here.

(Picture credit: Daily Mail)

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