Of the 1.8 million Americans diagnosed with cancer each year, more than 60 percent report that cost is a barrier to care. And nearly half of those patients are forced to take drastic measures — such as spending less on food and clothing — to be able to afford their treatments.
At the same time, there’s a tremendous amount of waste of medications because cancer treatments are frequently adjusted due to adverse reactions or disease progression. Those remaining pills that are prescribed are just discarded. In fact, a research paper published in the British Medical Journal in 2016 found that doctors and hospitals in the United States throw away close to $3 billion of unused oral oncology medication every year.
Eliza Sternlicht and Jack Schaeffer, both students at Brown University and the co-founders of MediCircle, are looking to revolutionize health care equity by minimizing this waste. The startup connects unopened medications to patients in need.
Q: How does the redistribution process work?
Sternlicht: We collect these leftover oncology pills after a registered health care facility notifies us when a donation is ready and receive a prepaid shipping label. Then we recertify the medicines’ quality using a comprehensive three-step quality assurance process and redistribute the medication to financially burdened patients at little to no cost. A facility can request our medication on behalf of individuals who are having a hard time affording their treatments. We deliver by mail so it’s as seamless as possible.
[Sternlicht told the Globe they only take FDA-approved, unopened, unexpired oral chemotherapeutics in tamper-evident packaging.]
Q: Is this legal?
Sternlicht: There are a few different governing bodies involved. There are state-based regulations that have to legalize drug donations. And then the Food and Drug administration and Drug Enforcement Administration has to approve. This process is FDA/DEA compliant.
Q: What about in Rhode Island?
Sternlicht: Rhode Island is actually one of the remaining 10 states who have not yet enacted legislation to allow us to do this. So our operations of redistribution of medications are centralized in New Jersey [but headquarters are in Providence]. That being said, we’re moving forward with lobbying efforts to introduce a bill into the next legislative session with the R.I. General Assembly. We’re just creating a legislative road map and have some people in mind. It’s our biggest hurdle to get started in this state. [Sternlicht told the Globe that they are still looking for sponsors.]
Q: How did you come up with this idea?
Sternlicht: Prior to the pandemic, I was doing research at Tufts Medical Center and I sent out a survey that was completed by over 100 anesthesiologists. And 56 percent of them said that waste management had the greatest unmet need. I partnered with Jack, who I’ve worked with on projects before. I’m the chief technology officer and have more knowledge and expertise on the medical side. He is the chief executive officer and handles the economics and business side of MediCircle.
Q: What was your first step to make sure there was a need in Rhode Island?
Sternlicht: For the first several months, we just got in our car and visited nearly every nursing home and hospital in Rhode Island and talked to patients, pharmacists, and providers. It was all the same trend: Patients were reporting that they were having trouble affording their medications and that they would go through extremes like skipping doses or cut pills in half. Then, at the same facility, we would go in the back room of these facilities and see the biomedical waste bins full to the top of the very medications that these patients need.
It’s definitely an undiscussed, two-sided problem that medicine faces.
Q: Have you received any funding or investors?
Sternlicht: We’re mostly participating in grants and competitions, and most notably were the first-place winners of the Brown Venture Prize Pitch Competition this year (earning $25,000). We’ve earned about $30,000 in grants and are just starting our angel pre-seed round. We don’t want to turn to venture capitalists right now because of the complex regulatory space.
Q: What’s your five-year goal?
Sternlicht: We decided to target cancer initially because it’s one of the most expensive medications with chemotherapies and hormonal therapies costing about $10,000, on average, each month. But we want to move into other high-value specialty medications. There’s about $40 billion of specialty medications wasted annually and about $120 billion of any medication wasted annually.
We want to help people, and we want to do it in all 50 states.