Penny Wise and Pound Foolish: Reusing Hospital Materials


Some seemingly frugal choices made in the veterinary hospital actually end up costing you in the long run.

When you cross the border from Phillipsburg, New Jersey, to Easton, Pennsylvania, you have two options:

  • You can stay on the highway and use the toll bridge. The good news: It takes seconds to cross the bridge. The bad news: It will set you back $1.
  • You can use the aptly nicknamed “free bridge.” The good news: It’s free. The bad news: It requires a convoluted detour and probably takes five minutes because of a number of stop signs and red lights. In addition, this bridge is slippery, especially when it is raining, so there is a significantly higher risk of getting into an accident than using the toll bridge.

Which option is better? It’s obvious to me that spending $1 to save five minutes, gas money as well as wear and tear on my car is the wiser choice. Yet every day, countless people make a different choice and take the free bridge.

Similar faulty reasoning happens daily at veterinary clinics. For example, does it make sense to rewrap reusable surgical gowns?

Let’s look at the costs involved:

  • Cloth surgical gown — conservatively $20, and eventually requires replacement
  • An older washing machine uses 30 to 45 gallons of water per load. A high-efficiency washer uses 15 to 30 gallons of water per load. Neither is exactly environmentally friendly.
  • Laundry detergent
  • Electricity

This likely costs hundreds of dollar every year — not counting the wages you are paying your staff to do the laundry.

But all we have done so far is clean the dirty gowns. Next, staff members (presumably still on payroll) need to move laundry from the washer to the dryer. More money spent on electricity. Then they need to sort, fold and put away said laundry.

This involves folding and wrapping the gown, hopefully along with a hand towel and a sterilization strip. For that, they need to find and unfold wrapping material, actually wrap each gown, autoclave it and let it vent. More money on electricity, and lots of distilled water. Not to mention regular maintenance and repairs of your temperamental autoclave.

Let’s talk more specifically about the time it takes for your staff to process surgery gowns after a surgery day. If four or five gowns were used, that is a full load of laundry (including gowns and hand towels). Washing and drying takes about two hours and five to 10 minutes of staff time. Folding and wrapping four to five gowns takes approximately 20 minutes, plus time to autoclave and restock the gowns on a shelf. How much money have you spent so far?

The same reasoning applies to cloth drapes. I will spare you the description of each step.

Or, you could opt to buy a roll of disposable paper drapes. Countless colleagues do that, yet they still need to pay staff to cut, fold, wrap, sterilize and store them.

The same thought process applies to rewrapping suction hoses, with the added chore of having to clean dried blood and the pain of letting them dry for days and days. It’s such a waste of time and money. Yet do you have any idea how much a suction hose costs? About a buck!

Is this really the best use of a technician’s or assistant’s time? Wouldn't you rather them be providing better patient care or educating clients?

A much wiser decision might be to purchase single-use, disposable surgical gowns, drapes and suction hoses. It may look like a bigger expense upfront, on paper, but you will save a lot more in payroll and other expenses.

This is the veterinary equivalent of being penny wise and pound foolish, and it’s no different than making a five-minute detour to save a buck on a toll bridge.

Kelly Serfas, a certified veterinary technician in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, contributed to this article.

Dr. Zeltzman is a board-certified veterinary surgeon and serial entrepreneur. His traveling surgery practice takes him all over Eastern Pennsylvania and Western New Jersey. You can visit his websites at and

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