Stanford team creates system to recoup unused drugs

Startup nonprofit lets health workers redirect excess prescription pills to needy patients

A team of Stanford University students and graduates has created a system to recoup unused prescription drugs and redirect them to uninsured patients.

The Web-enabled system will start to make a dent in the billions of dollars in unused medicine that is wasted annually in the United States, according to State Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto.

The Stanford team hosted Simitian Friday, Feb. 24, in a celebration of the university-based nonprofit startup SIRUM (Supporting Initiatives to Redistribute Unused Medications) at Stanford's Haas Center for Public Service.

Simitian sponsored legislation to ease regulatory hurdles to the drug transfers after hearing about the medical waste problem in 2005 from then-Stanford University medical student Josemaria Paterno.

But it took the legwork and engineering talents of a larger Stanford team to make the drug transfers user-friendly for medical workers charged with disposing of unused prescription products.

Nursing director Deane Kirchner of Lincoln-Glen Manor & Nursing Facility in San Jose, the first donor to the SIRUM system, said the level of waste has been a constant frustration for her in her 24-year medical career.

"As a new charge nurse I would keep track of extra medications I had on hand because orders had changed, or they'd finished their antibiotics and there was extra left over," Kirchner said.

"We could keep them for 90 days in case the patient needed them again, and after that we'd have to get rid of them. We used to flush them, and record it on the medical dispositions sheet.

"Now we don't flush them -- we ship them off to be incinerated -- but the result is still the same -- we're still wasting all these medications."

SIRUM's system enables Kirchner to list available unused medications on a Web form for a potential match with recipients in need. When a match is found, the system generates a Fedex label and packing slip, making it easy to document and donate.

Stanford engineering graduate Adam Kircher, who has designed database matching systems, took on the medical supply chain challenge in the research for his master's degree in industrial engineering.

"More than $100 million of usable medications currently go to waste in California health care facilities, but one-third of California's uninsured forgo prescription drugs due to cost," Kircher said.

So far, $600,000 worth of medications have run through the SIRUM system, according to the group's finance director, Kiah Williams.

"Our new goal is to recruit 100 new facilities and donate $1 million in wholesale value in one year, and we feel we're ready to reach that scale," Williams said.

Costs so far have been underwritten by grants. But SIRUM is looking toward a sustainability model in which donors would potentially pay a fee that is still less than the cost of incineration and recipients would pay a fee that is less than the cost of the drug, staff members said.

SIRUM cannot accept donations of excess pharmaceuticals from individuals, staff members said.

In the heavily regulated prescription drug industry, the system is designed to ensure that medications "come from safe institutions and go to other safe institutions to be used for folks who need it," Williams said.

Simitian said he introduced additional legislation Friday to further facilitate SIRUM's system by expanding the donor base and recipient pool and allowing pharmacy-to-pharmacy exchanges.

"There's no reason why hundreds of millions of dollars over time shouldn't be saved at the national level, and hundreds of thousands of individuals helped," he said.

"The public 'gets' this. People put their lives at risk -- skipping their daily doses -- because they don't have the dollars to access the medications that folks across town are flushing down the toilet."

The original request to Simitian, from then-medical student Paterno -- now a third-year medical resident at Massachusetts General Hospital and an advisor to SIRUM -- came through Simitian's annual "There Oughta Be a Law" contest.

More than 39 states have established Good Samaritan laws to protect donor and recipient organizations involved in medicine donations, according to SIRUM's website.

We can't do it without you.
Support local journalism.


Like this comment
Posted by Cured
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 27, 2012 at 10:46 am

Thank you Simitian.
A point of information with regard to individuals still having to waste unused anitobiotcs:
I had to go through various extremely expensive antibiotics before an infection finally responded to one particular antibiotic. Some of these antibiotics had to be given by infusion so theyWhen I was left with a large number of unused antibiotics I asked around to determine what could be done so as not to waste those drugs.
I finally learned that the Marine Mammal Rescue Center (not sure that is the exact name) should be called to see if they could use the antibiotics on the animals they treat. Turned out they were delighted to receive the antibiotics.

Like this comment
Posted by hates waste
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Feb 27, 2012 at 10:50 am

GREAT idea. Some of us have been doing this with unused or remaining veterinary prescriptions for a long time but within a circle of acquaintances.

It's about time that needy humans are able to do the same!

Like this comment
Posted by A question
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 27, 2012 at 10:57 am

I have a lot of pain medication left over from recent surgery. Would like to donate it. How do I do that? The Web site given only shows how to donate money to SIRUM--not how to donate meds.

PA Weekly, would you please post this helpful information? Thank you.

Like this comment
Posted by Chris Kenrick, Palo Alto Weekly staff writer
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 27, 2012 at 11:06 am

A question:

The SIRUM system cannot accept donations from individuals. In the heavily regulated area of prescription pharmaceuticals, the exchange system is designed to ensure that drugs "come from safe institutions and go to other safe institutions to be used for folks who need it," SIRUM's finance director Kiah Williams said.

Like this comment
Posted by Stephen
a resident of another community
on Feb 27, 2012 at 12:51 pm

I have some unused meds that I could donate. I live in San Diego,CA. Can I donate these meds to your project? If so, let me know. Thanks.

Like this comment
Posted by chris
a resident of University South
on Feb 27, 2012 at 1:51 pm


Are you a "safe institution"?

Like this comment
Posted by Pet Owner
a resident of South of Midtown
on Feb 28, 2012 at 1:51 am

One thing that I as an individual have been able to donate is my empty prescription-medication containers from the pharmacy (the ones with child-proof caps, anyway) — my vet accepts them and reuses them to dispense medications to her animal clients. (I peel the labels off first, of course.) Two members of our family are heavy users of prescription meds, and it's nice to see that even the empty containers can save someone some money.

Like this comment
Posted by Mark S.
a resident of another community
on Mar 30, 2012 at 9:22 am

There is a company in Minnesota called Verde Environmental Technologies that is launching a consumer Medsaway product and Medsaway professional use for veterinary clinics/nursing homes and hospitals this product is a carbon based product that is designed to adsorb the unused medications. The other large problem is transdermal patches with unused medications and Verde is addressing that problem as well.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Be the first to know

Get the latest headlines sent straight to your inbox every day.

Peek inside the fine-dining Selby's, opening in Redwood City this summer
By Elena Kadvany | 8 comments | 4,291 views

Homestead Faire at Hidden Villa 4/27
By Laura Stec | 8 comments | 1,237 views

If you do nothing else, do These Three Things
By Sherry Listgarten | 9 comments | 1,175 views

Premarital and Couples: "You're Not Listening to Me!" may mean "I don't feel heard."
By Chandrama Anderson | 2 comments | 1,124 views

All those things our city does – and doesn’t -- do
By Diana Diamond | 8 comments | 1,030 views


Vote now!

It's time once again to cast your vote for the best places to eat, drink, shop and spend time in Palo Alto. Voting is open now through May 27. Watch for the results of our 2019 Best Of contest on Friday, July 19.