Recycling Unused Medicine

People get prescribed a lot of drugs. Then they usually don’t take them. Instead of throwing them away, what if they could get the drugs to people who need them?

Talk about a disconnect. One-in-three uninsured Americans have difficulty paying for prescriptions. And yet we throw away a huge amount of usable drugs: one company put the figure nationwide at $4-$5 billion.

Disconnects are opportunities, though, and that is where Sirum comes in. For the last four years, it’s been collecting unused drugs and redistributing them to people who need them at low cost and free clinics. Co-founder Kiah Williams calls Sirum “the for unused medicine.”

“We’re using technology to collect surplus medicines to help vulnerable people,” she says.

Sirum mostly collects from nursing homes that often get left with prescriptions when patients pass away (as you can see from the video). The institution simply goes to the site, records what it has, and Sirum matches up the drugs with a clinic that needs them. Sirum has redistributed 440,000 units of medicine, worth $1.4 million so far. The most common medications are anti-depressants, and treatments for cardiovascular disease.

At the moment, Sirum operates only in California, where it works with 150 assisted living and health facilities. But, it’s looking to expand and is currently working out where that might be feasible. California benefits from a 2005 “Good Samaritan” law, which allows drugs to be passed on. But other states have similar laws (though not as helpful), and sometimes run small-scale recycling programs (though nothing approaching the size or organization of Sirum).

Sirum has a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (to look at new markets) as well as from the California Healthcare Foundation. But Williams doesn’t want Sirum relying on hand-outs over the long term. The group recently introduced a membership fee to cover its running costs.

Apart from helping out people who lack access to important drugs, the startup is also doing something about the problem of pharmaceutical waste. That issue is less serious than it used to be, as clinics now dispose of waste more thoughtfully (including by giving it over for energy generation). But it’s better to use medicine for its original purpose: alleviating pain is more useful than electricity, after all.

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