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eyedrops wasteMatt Roth for ProPublica

  • Eyedrops are larger than needed, and pharmaceutical companies know it.

  • Research has shown it’s possible to waste less — and that smaller eyedrops work just as well.

  • A “micro drop” never made it to market, possibly because it raised too many questions about profits.

  • Like eyedrops, cancer drugs are sold by volume, so they're vulnerable to the same problem.

  • Paying for wasted drugs adds to the cost of health care that patients are already bearing.

If you’ve ever put in an eyedrop, some of it has almost certainly spilled onto your eyelid or cheek.

The good news is the mess doesn’t necessarily mean you missed. The bad news is that medicine you wiped off your face is wasted by design — and it’s well-known to the drug companies that make the drops.

Eyedrops overflow our eyes because drug companies make the typical drop — from pricey glaucoma drugs to a cheap bottle of Visine — larger than a human eye can hold. Some are so large that if they were pills, every time you swallowed one, you’d toss another in the garbage.

The waste frustrates glaucoma experts like Dr. Alan Robin, whose patients struggle to make pricey bottles of drops last. He has urged drug companies to move to smaller drops — to no avail.

“They had no interest in people, their pocketbooks or what the cost of drugs meant,” said Robin, a Baltimore ophthalmologist, researcher and adjunct professor at the University of Michigan Medical School.

ProPublica has been documenting the many ways health care dollars are being wasted. We’ve shown how hospitals throw out brand new supplies, nursing homes flush tons of unexpired medication and drug companies concoct costly combinations of cheap medication. Recently we described how arbitrary drug expiration dates cause us to toss safe and potent medicine.

Often, large swaths of the medical and pharmaceutical communities know about this waste — even about solutions to it — but do nothing. Those who end up paying the bill, in one way or another, are consumers.

Liquid medication is squandered every day. Beyond eyedrops, liquid cancer drugs are frequently packaged in oversized single-use vials that contain more of the drug than most patients need. This guarantees that a quantity of life-saving medication is tossed — and its cost tacked onto patients’ bills.

“Why are they putting the providers in a position where we have so much waste and it’s costing everybody money?” said Lorraine Holzapfel, an administrator at Marin Cancer Care in California who has analyzed the cost of wasted cancer drugs. “We are in a time when we are trying to cut medical costs.”

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