Exporting and Using Medical Equipment

A student writes:

I am a 5th Year Medical Student involved in a charity organisation that collects medical goods that are recycled/past expiry dates but still in good condition for re-use/excess from stocks, and aims to provide more impoverished clinics and hospitals abroad with these goods through students’ electives.

I have been trying to find ethical guidelines on this on the Net but have failed to find anything useful. 

Would you be able to help me on this matter?

We have already excluded any drugs/saline/liquid form of anything as I know that they will most definitely not be permitted.  However, the kind of equipments we collect include items such as sterile surgical tools such as scalpel blades, forceps, syringes, gloves, bandages, blood sugar monitors, catheter bags, etc.

I would very much appreciate your help!

I’m throwing this out to readers, because you may be able to suggest things.

For my part, I have a slightly sneaky feeling that whatever problems there might be with this are regulatory rather than stricto sensu ethical; I don’t think that there’re any standout ethical problems, but there’s a few things that’ve crossed my mind as possibilities that I suppose might be raised.

In no particular order, I suppose that some people might have worries like these:

  • We can’t be certain that the equipment being exported is safe.
    • Well, there’s no reason to suppose that it isn’t, either; and from the list of items mentioned in the email, it’s not obvious that there would be any serious safety concerns; any concerns that there are ought to be fairly easily met.
  • All the same, isn’t it a bit dodgy to offload all our second-rate stuff onto poorer countries like this?
    • All else being equal, perhaps – but even if (arguendo) we are exporting second-rate stuff, it might still be better than nothing or the fifth-rate stuff with which medics would otherwise have to work.
  • What about the provenance of the things being exported?
    • This might be a bit more substantial.  Even if equipment would otherwise be thrown out, it doesn’t follow that it’s up for grabs.  On the other hand, you’d have to have a fairly unbending view of property rights to think that there is anything seriously wrong with taking and making use of things that would otherwise go to waste; and it’s not obvious that such an unbending view has a lot to recommend it.  (Think here of recent cases of supermarkets complaining about “freegans” helping themselves to thrown-out-but-edible food; while it’s possible that the supermarkets might have had a legal point, whether they had a moral one is a different matter entirely.  mutatis mutandis, the same sort of considerations might well apply here.)
  • Is it fair on the students?
    • I suppose another worry might be one about whether it’s really on to have students carting medical equipment around the world while they’re on elective – it’ll either be costly, or take up baggage space that they might legitimately want to use themselves.  But, having said this, the scheme is voluntary – so the worry doesn’t seem to hold much water.

Can anyone come up with anything better?

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