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Medical supplies in the MedShare warehouse in Decatur, GA. (Courtesy MedShare.)
Medical supplies in the MedShare warehouse in Decatur, GA. (Courtesy MedShare.)

More Effective Delivery Model for Humanitarian Aid

Researchers from Georgia Institute of Technology Scheller College of Business and Georgia Institute of Technology H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering have identified how medical surplus items can be distributed more effectively by humanitarian organizations. Two recent articles, "Effective Medical Surplus Recovery" and "Truthful Mechanisms for Medical Surplus Product Allocation," identified novel and implementable operations and supply chain solutions for matching MedShare's supply and demand through recipient prioritization.

MedShare, the Medical Surplus Recovery Organization (MSRO) that served as the researchers' site of research and analysis, by all accounts excels in its mission to "improve the quality of life of people and our planet." Among the nation's top-rated nonprofits, the Decatur-based MSRO bridges the gap between surplus and needs by shipping excess medical supplies and equipment to developing countries. Since its foundation in 1998, MedShare has delivered over $206 million of humanitarian aid and has helped over 19 million patients worldwide. In addition to the social impact of donations, the organization has saved 2.5 million pounds of excess medical items from entering landfills in the United States.

MedShare CEO Charles Redding (CE 1985), who received his bachelor's degree in Chemical Engineering from Georgia Tech, has forged a number of relationships between his organization and alma mater. On a visit to Scheller College of Business Professor Atalay Atasu's MBA class in supply chain management, Redding spoke about how MedShare does not fit the typical supply and demand model. Due to its mission to continually help those in need and its dependency on donations, MedShare has conceivably infinite demand and very limited supply. He told students how MedShare matched demand and supply: Recipients log into the system to view current inventory and select items to fill their shipping containers. He compared it to "shopping on Amazon."

These exchanges led Professors Atasu and Beril Toktay each to write a case study focused on different facets of MedShare's exciting supply chain model. Can Zhang, a PhD student in Industrial and Systems Engineering who is interested in socially responsible operations, heard about these efforts and, along with one of his advisors Professor Turgay Ayer, also became interested in MedShare. The research team studied how MedShare matched supply of medical surplus in the US with medical needs in the developing world.

In studying the nonprofit's operations, the four researchers discovered that allowing recipients to view and select from an online list of available inventory could create time-based competition in the ordering system, resulting in recipients selecting and receiving medical items that might not meet their most pressing needs. Zhang applied game theory to the creation of models to better match inventory and need. He determined that a "wish list" model would provide clarity in regard to recipients' top priorities. Instead of displaying available inventory for "shopping", the wish list model would let recipients rank their priorities from a list of all potential items, but without displaying actual inventory levels. MedShare could then service those recipients whose needs are best met by current inventory.

Medical supplies in the MedShare warehouse in Decatur, GA. (Courtesy MedShare.)

Redding said MedShare historically gave recipients post-order surveys that included the question, "Were you able to use the equipment you ordered?" Most recipients usually answered "yes." However, Redding noted, "We never asked the question, 'Did we provide what you really wanted?' We were forcing them to select from what was available, as opposed to identifying what they really needed and having them wait until it was available." He praised Zhang and the team of researchers for providing a more effective model for delivering humanitarian aid resulting in the greatest good for a community.

For his work on "Truthful Mechanisms for Medical Surplus Product Allocation," Zhang won the 2017 POMS College of Sustainable Operations Best Student Paper Award, the 2017 INFORMS MSOM Society Best Student Paper Award, and the 2017 INFORMS-wide Doing Good with Good OR Award. Zhang said the project excites him because of the social welfare and humanitarian angle. He said, "I'm from a small town in China, and I have been one of the people who received aid from others. Therefore, I feel very motivated to study a problem like this—how to help people more effectively. My hope is to build an academic career where I have social impact by working on scarce resource allocation problems in nonprofits and healthcare supply chains."

References:
A. Atasu, B. Toktay, W.M. Yeo, C. Zhang (2017). "Effective Medical Surplus Recovery." Production and Operations Management, 26(6), 1142-1162.

C. Zhang, A. Atasu, T. Ayer, B. Toktay (2017). "Truthful Mechanisms for Medical Surplus Product Allocation." Georgia Institute of Technology Working Paper. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3050085

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