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A student-led medical charity committed to sustainability

In recent months, our world has turned upside down. For many, the COVID-19 pandemic has unveiled many previously hidden facets of our society: primarily, the impact of globalisation and lack of cooperation, pointing to the true cost of our lifestyles on our health and the environment. Perhaps more hopefully, we have realised the importance of small actions and the potential they have for change.

Climate change has been identified as a significant public health threat. Paradoxically, medicine itself has a considerable environmental impact. The NHS is the largest public-sector contributor to the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions. Every year, the healthcare sector generates 100 million tonnes of solid waste, 85 per cent of which generally ends up in landfill sites across England and Wales. Hence, we must develop sustainable strategies and policies to benefit the health of communities as well as the planet. 

MedAID is a student-led society and charity formed in 2008 at the University of Edinburgh which hopes to aid this crucial issue. We encourage further thinking and research into opportunities to reduce the medical waste footprint, by facilitating the progress of the healthcare sector towards economic, social and environmental sustainability. We hope to mobilise and empower students, medical professionals, and members of the public throughout the UK to take an active role in reducing NHS waste. Our innovative method allows increased access to medical equipment, hoping this aids provision of healthcare elsewhere. 

MedAID is a small but growing society that collects unwanted and out of date, but perfectly viable, medical equipment from hospitals in Edinburgh and throughout the UK. We then coordinate its redistribution to under-resourced medical institutions abroad through medical students on electives, humanitarian health workers and other NGOs. This initiative provides a platform to bridge the gap between waste in the NHS and the shortage of medical equipment in resource-limited settings. 

Up to forty per cent of the equipment has been procured primarily from within Edinburgh. Due to our increasing efforts in raising awareness, we have recently begun to receive equipment from Oxford, London, Leicestershire and even as far as North Devon. The movement which initially began in Edinburgh is small but starting to grow. We have recently coordinated the opening of a new sister organisation in Leeds. In the next few months, further societies are set to open in Dundee and Oxford as more and more students, universities and NHS trusts have become involved in this idea.

Our storeroom, kindly provided by the University of Edinburgh, houses items, categorised in their respective uses of General Medical, Surgical, Respiratory, Urinary, Cardiovascular, Paediatrics, Gastroenterology and Emergency. These vary from generalised medical equipment, such as gowns, gloves and masks to specialist instruments such as craniotomy sets and bone marrow biopsy needles. We continuously strive to maintain an updated inventory and source new equipment, hoping to donate larger volumes to an increased number of places. 

MedAID was initially designed as a support for medical electives. Yet, the large amounts of equipment have meant we are increasingly able to cooperate with other NGOs. This academic year alone, we have collaborated with the Gambia Volunteers Trust, AlBir-SCIO (Chad), Rock Project Uganda, Project Soweto (South Africa), Pride Forde Foundation (Sierra Leone) and many others. 

In a way, we are a short-term, effective solution for the surplus of NHS waste. However, our ambitious, long-term goal hopes to change the way the NHS operates, ensuring a sustainable future without compromising patient care. Through the presentation of our work at local Edinburgh hospitals, we hope to trigger the implementation of new legislation and ways of thinking. Despite the recent disruption, we also hope to continue this fantastic work in the upcoming months.  

We therefore call for an innovative rethinking of our current healthcare system and the treatment of our environment. Too often, as doctors, we focus solely on the health of the patient, forgetting that we are also intricately linked to our environment. In light of the recent COVID pandemic, the promotion of this local, national and global cooperation has become even more apparent. We cannot hope to provide the best patient care while ignoring the damage, pollution and suffering we are inflicting on ourselves and our future generations. 

MedAID has started creating a network of individuals who, regardless of whether they are students, doctors or members of the public, are dedicated to improving society. Their small actions, in combination, have, are and will make an immense difference. 

We welcome any donation of equipment, possible collaboration or even spreading the word of what we do is a step in the right direction towards a more sustainable future. 

For more information, please head to our Facebook (MedAID Edinburgh), our website (http://www.medaidedinburgh.com/), or send an email to medaid.charity@gmail.com

Alba Saenz de Villaverde and Nur Shazlin Shek Daud are the president and vice-president of MedAID, respectively.

Image via MedAID