Turning Disconnects Into Opportunities

Jun 28, 2013, 8:00 AM, Posted by Wendy Yallowitz

During my time as a social worker working with our most vulnerable older Americans, I saw firsthand just how much skilled nursing facilities need to do every day to care for our loved ones. Providing that care is always rewarding, but never easy. Residents come and go, and their care needs change daily. Beds go unfilled. Activities go unattended. Food goes uneaten.

While concentrating on providing care to this vulnerable population, we miss out on an opportunity to easily help so many other vulnerable Americans. Every year, nursing facilities let millions of dollars’ worth of medicine that many low-income patients desperately need go to waste.

Why? Because when medication regimens change or residents leave, nursing facilities end up with pounds of unopened, valuable medicine they cannot, by law, send back to the pharmacy.

Meanwhile, as truckloads of unused medication head for disposal facilities, one in four chronically ill Americans are skipping the prescription medications they need to be healthy, simply because they can’t afford them.

As Fast Company reporter Ben Schiller so aptly put it in his story on our grantee Supporting Initiatives to Redistribute Unused Medicine (SIRUM) this week: Talk about a disconnect.

Luckily, I can do more than just cringe at this inefficiency in how we dispose of and distribute drugs. I can help support a solution that is, as Schiller described it, turning a disconnect into an opportunity.

SIRUM—as so many of our other grantees have done—identified a barrier and turned it into a simple, sustainable solution. They found a way, for the first time ever, to capture these otherwise wasted drugs and redistribute them to the low-income patients who need them most. With the power of an easy-to-use online platform and the help of California’s Good Samaritan laws, SIRUM has redistributed $1.4 million worth of drugs to date.

With millions more in unused drugs still going to waste every year, SIRUM has a lot of opportunity left to seize. Later this year, they hope to expand their program beyond California while also striving toward their goal of signing up 25 percent of all California skilled nursing facilities as donors.

And I can’t help but think of how this model could be applied in other areas—diverting resources that would go to waste to areas that need them most. For example, what about unopened medical supplies?

Check out the full Fast Company story on SIRUM and the work they’ve done to turn a major gap into a great idea.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.