Ai, healthcare, alzheimers, medical imaging

The Future Impact of Artificial Intelligence in Medical Practice

Nigel Whittle - Head of Medical & Healthcare

By: Nigel Whittle
Head of Medical & Healthcare

5th December 2018

Home » Product Design

We are all aware of the challenges facing healthcare in general, and the NHS in particular. Shortage of funding, increased demands for services, rising costs of innovative drug treatments, the needs of an ageing population. All these issues limit the efficacy of our healthcare service.

There is only so much that can be done with improved efficiency. But what if we could improve diagnosis, so that diseases are detected and treated earlier? In almost every disease, early diagnosis would allow cheaper and more effective treatment, with improved patient outcomes. But of course accuracy is important too, so that scarce resources can be targeted to the right patients.

And that is what makes clinical diagnosis so difficult, requiring skilled and knowledgeable practitioners, whether the local GP or the Harley Street physician. These skills, developed by years of medical training, allow effective diagnosis of disease based not just on clinical information, but also on the patients past history, social background, age and ethnicity.

But at the end of the day, the clinician is simply processing data. And this is the primary strength of Artificial Intelligence.

So which areas are likely to be most impacted by AI?

Medical Imaging

medical imaging, HEALTHCARE , AIUK hospitals generate a staggering 50 petabytes of data every year, of which the vast majority comes from medical imaging. But more than 97% of that data is unused or unanalysed, perhaps because it is unusable, or redundant, or simply swamping the capacities of the clinicians. But AI-powered medical imaging systems can now reliably produce scans that help radiologists identify subtle patterns, helping them treat patients with emergent conditions more quickly. Will this lead to the disappearance of radiology as a clinical profession? Perhaps a more likely outcome is that radiologists will be able to allocate their time more effectively, to work closely with patients with the most serious or complex conditions.

Similarly, cancer diagnosis can be made more accurate through the use of AI systems running scans linked to complex recognition algorithms. When cancer is detected early, treatment is more likely to be successful. But too often, cancers are diagnosed at a late stage when they’re much harder to treat. But AI systems are beginning to take on some of the workload: for example, an algorithm has been developed to diagnose skin cancer more accurately than dermatologists (95% compared with 87%). But in doing so, we must remember that AI systems are not infallible, and the relationship between the patient and the doctor is important so that false negatives are not dismissed out of hand.

In another example, researchers at Imperial College London are working with DeepMind Health to develop AI-based techniques to improve the accuracy of breast cancer screening, using a database of 7,500 anonymised mammograms to develop screening algorithms that can spot early signs of breast cancer whilst reducing over-diagnosis.

But perhaps more interestingly, could there be ways to detect hidden clues in people’s lives that point to cancer? As we generate, collect and share more data than ever before, some of which may be relevant to our health, is there a way to gather this information and help detect diseases such as cancer earlier? And even if it is possible, is it something that we would allow big data systems and corporations to do?

Alzheimer’s Disease

Currently, there’s no easy way to diagnose Alzheimer’s Disease: no single test exists, and brain scans alone can’t determine whether someone has the disease. But alterations in the brain can cause subtle changes in behaviour and sleep patterns years before people start experiencing confusion and memory loss. Artificial intelligence could recognize these changes early and identify patients at risk of developing the most severe forms of the disease, allowing clinicians to target drug and behavioural therapies most effectively.

ai, healthcare, patient doctor

The role of the doctor

It is clear that managing patient data is a core component of the healthcare delivery process, and AI systems will increasingly play an important role in this process. AI is capable of processing larger amounts of data and at a faster rate than human clinicians, is capable of achieving a higher level of accuracy and is not subject to fatigue or burnout.

Which naturally raises a question, what will be the future role of the doctor?

No matter is strengths, AI lacks human sensitivity; clinical applications still require human expertise in the interpretation of data and recommendations. As the role of the physician evolves in the era of AI, the humanity of healthcare delivery will remain critical, and rituals (‘the bedside manner’) that may have been lost in the rush for efficiency savings may emerge with a new-found focus on the patient at the centre of treatment.

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If you are interested in talking to Nigel Whittle, our Head of Medical & Healthcare about how Plextek can assist with your project, please email nigel.whittle@plextek.com

We are all aware of the challenges facing healthcare in general, and the NHS in particular. Shortage of funding, increased demands for services, rising costs of innovative drug treatments, the needs of an ageing population. All these issues limit the efficacy of our healthcare service.

There is only so much that can be done with improved efficiency. But what if we could improve diagnosis, so that diseases are detected and treated earlier? In almost every disease, early diagnosis would allow cheaper and more effective treatment, with improved patient outcomes. But of course accuracy is important too, so that scarce resources can be targeted to the right patients.

And that is what makes clinical diagnosis so difficult, requiring skilled and knowledgeable practitioners, whether the local GP or the Harley Street physician. These skills, developed by years of medical training, allow effective diagnosis of disease based not just on clinical information, but also on the patients past history, social background, age and ethnicity.

But at the end of the day, the clinician is simply processing data. And this is the primary strength of Artificial Intelligence.

So which areas are likely to be most impacted by AI?

Medical Imaging

medical imaging, HEALTHCARE , AIUK hospitals generate a staggering 50 petabytes of data every year, of which the vast majority comes from medical imaging. But more than 97% of that data is unused or unanalysed, perhaps because it is unusable, or redundant, or simply swamping the capacities of the clinicians. But AI-powered medical imaging systems can now reliably produce scans that help radiologists identify subtle patterns, helping them treat patients with emergent conditions more quickly. Will this lead to the disappearance of radiology as a clinical profession? Perhaps a more likely outcome is that radiologists will be able to allocate their time more effectively, to work closely with patients with the most serious or complex conditions.

Similarly, cancer diagnosis can be made more accurate through the use of AI systems running scans linked to complex recognition algorithms. When cancer is detected early, treatment is more likely to be successful. But too often, cancers are diagnosed at a late stage when they’re much harder to treat. But AI systems are beginning to take on some of the workload: for example, an algorithm has been developed to diagnose skin cancer more accurately than dermatologists (95% compared with 87%). But in doing so, we must remember that AI systems are not infallible, and the relationship between the patient and the doctor is important so that false negatives are not dismissed out of hand.

In another example, researchers at Imperial College London are working with DeepMind Health to develop AI-based techniques to improve the accuracy of breast cancer screening, using a database of 7,500 anonymised mammograms to develop screening algorithms that can spot early signs of breast cancer whilst reducing over-diagnosis.
But perhaps more interestingly, could there be ways to detect hidden clues in people’s lives that point to cancer? As we generate, collect and share more data than ever before, some of which may be relevant to our health, is there a way to gather this information and help detect diseases such as cancer earlier? And even if it is possible, is it something that we would allow big data systems and corporations to do?

Alzheimer’s Disease

ai, healthcare, patient doctorCurrently, there’s no easy way to diagnose Alzheimer’s Disease: no single test exists, and brain scans alone can’t determine whether someone has the disease. But alterations in the brain can cause subtle changes in behaviour and sleep patterns years before people start experiencing confusion and memory loss. Artificial intelligence could recognize these changes early and identify patients at risk of developing the most severe forms of the disease, allowing clinicians to target drug and behavioural therapies most effectively.

The role of the doctor

It is clear that managing patient data is a core component of the healthcare delivery process, and AI systems will increasingly play an important role in this process. AI is capable of processing larger amounts of data and at a faster rate than human clinicians, is capable of achieving a higher level of accuracy and is not subject to fatigue or burnout.

Which naturally raises a question, what will be the future role of the doctor?

No matter is strengths, AI lacks human sensitivity; clinical applications still require human expertise in the interpretation of data and recommendations. As the role of the physician evolves in the era of AI, the humanity of healthcare delivery will remain critical, and rituals (‘the bedside manner’) that may have been lost in the rush for efficiency savings may emerge with a new-found focus on the patient at the centre of treatment.

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If you are interested in talking to Nigel Whittle, our Head of Medical & Healthcare about how Plextek can assist with your project, please email nigel.whittle@plextek.com

The Importance of Concept Generation

By: Ehsan Abedi
Product Designer, Product Design

28th November 2018

Home » Product Design

In a modern world, people are often overloaded with information and new products. Effective concept generation allows for the exploration of new ideas that are both novel, commercially successful and of value to the user.

Concept generation is a vital part of the engineering design process. This comes early on in the product design or design engineering process and is essentially a procedure that begins with a range of technical requirements and user considerations. It ends with a multitude of product concept designs.

There were several interactions I had throughout the recent Engineering Design Show which highlighted the importance of concept generation within the modern design process. In a conversation with a manufacturing company based in Hong Kong, they expressed their frustration with receiving part designs which were often incompatible with each other or whole products that are almost impossible to manufacture without significant modification. With better implementation of concept generation and selection, these issues would be less likely to be encountered at such a late stage in the design engineering process, saving companies time and money.

This was further highlighted in Steve May-Russell’s talk on design thinking where he demonstrated that for every 50 concepts there are 10 that successfully meet the whole design brief. Of that 10 it is likely that only 2 would go on to be the successful product.

These interactions clearly indicate the job of a designer is not only to rapidly generate a range of feasible product design concepts but also have the ability to effectively select and develop the best concepts further.

The next time you find yourself tackling a problem ask yourself, “how many alternative ways can I think of solving this issue?” and then think which idea is most effective. It is unlikely to be the first one that popped into your head…

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In a modern world, people are often overloaded with information and new products. Effective concept generation allows for the exploration of new ideas that are both novel, commercially successful and of value to the user.

Concept generation is a vital part of the engineering design process. This comes early on in the product design or design engineering process and is essentially a procedure that begins with a range of technical requirements and user considerations. It ends with a multitude of product concept designs.

There were several interactions I had throughout the recent Engineering Design Show which highlighted the importance of concept generation within the modern design process. In a conversation with a manufacturing company based in Hong Kong, they expressed their frustration with receiving part designs which were often incompatible with each other or whole products that are almost impossible to manufacture without significant modification. With better implementation of concept generation and selection, these issues would be less likely to be encountered at such a late stage in the design engineering process, saving companies time and money.

This was further highlighted in Steve May-Russell’s talk on design thinking where he demonstrated that for every 50 concepts there are 10 that successfully meet the whole design brief. Of that 10 it is likely that only 2 would go on to be the successful product.

These interactions clearly indicate the job of a designer is not only to rapidly generate a range of feasible product design concepts but also have the ability to effectively select and develop the best concepts further.

The next time you find yourself tackling a problem ask yourself, “how many alternative ways can I think of solving this issue?” and then think which idea is most effective. It is unlikely to be the first one that popped into your head…

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A Look Back in Events: Engineering Design Show 2018

A Look Back in Events: Engineering Design Show 2018

By: Ehsan Abedi
Product Designer

24th October 2018

Home » Product Design

The Engineering Design Show (EDS) exhibition was packed with over 220 exhibitors offering different areas of expertise and services. Being Plextek’s first time attending the show as exhibitors we were keen to show our creative and technical capabilities, observe how the industry is changing and exemplify how we can help others adapt to these changes.

Power of being genuine

As designers and engineers at Plextek, we are rarely involved in selling our capabilities but this proved to be of our benefit at the engineering design show. A lot of industry events are filled with slick salesmen who can sometimes intimidate or detract attention of designers, engineers and others looking to solve their own problems. As individuals untrained in selling, I found that by simply being our natural selves we felt that people at the show could chat to us genuinely and naturally on a range of matters.

We had great pleasure in meeting many like-minded engineers and designers which we hope to collaborate with. And they themselves faced a massive variety of problems, in everything from developing new wind farm technology to difficulties in intricate medical device development.

Breadth and depth in design & development

Plextek’s capabilities across the whole design and development process and history of working in a diverse range of sectors mean that we were able to interact with a lot of people at the show and think which experts within Plextek would be able to help them overcome their specific issues.


So how is the design engineering industry changing?

With a diverse range of exhibitors, workshops and conferences at the Engineering Design Show, it was possible to make observations on how the industry is changing.

Rate of change

Many people I met at EDS thought that the current rate of technological change is beginning to exceed our ability to adapt. This signifies how important it is for companies to implement a collaborative approach and ensure they are able to evolve and adapt to these rapid changes.

Automation

The technology on show at EDS demonstrated some of the major advances being made in automation. There was a range of mechatronic devices on show and it is easy to see how these technologies could be implemented within robotics and for the automation of more production processes.

Newer and more effective rapid prototyping technologies were also on show, which are continually making it cheaper and easier to rapidly design and test ideas to help inform the usability of the final products.

User Centric Design

Whether it is a small component being optimised for assembly or a final product optimised for comfort and usability, user centred design is clearly becoming more prevalent.

Designers in close contact to users are likely to build a sense of empathy for their users and hence develop more pleasing products.

The implementation of user centred design methods means products: reduce misuse, are safer to use and meet a user’s expectations and requirements. This in turn can lead to increased product sales and a reduction in the costs incurred by customer services.

Source: http://www.engineering-design-show.co.uk/gallery/

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The Engineering Design Show (EDS) exhibition was packed with over 220 exhibitors offering different areas of expertise and services. Being Plextek’s first time attending the show as exhibitors we were keen to show our creative and technical capabilities, observe how the industry is changing and exemplify how we can help others adapt to these changes.

Power of being genuine

As designers and engineers at Plextek, we are rarely involved in selling our capabilities but this proved to be of our benefit at the engineering design show. A lot of industry events are filled with slick salesmen who can sometimes intimidate or detract attention of designers, engineers and others looking to solve their own problems. As individuals untrained in selling, I found that by simply being our natural selves we felt that people at the show could chat to us genuinely and naturally on a range of matters.

We had great pleasure in meeting many like-minded engineers and designers which we hope to collaborate with. And they themselves faced a massive variety of problems, in everything from developing new wind farm technology to difficulties in intricate medical device development.

Breadth and depth in design & development

Plextek’s capabilities across the whole design and development process and history of working in a diverse range of sectors mean that we were able to interact with a lot of people at the show and think which experts within Plextek would be able to help them overcome their specific issues.


So how is the design engineering industry changing?

With a diverse range of exhibitors, workshops and conferences at the Engineering Design Show, it was possible to make observations on how the industry is changing.

Rate of change

Many people I met at EDS thought that the current rate of technological change is beginning to exceed our ability to adapt. This signifies how important it is for companies to implement a collaborative approach and ensure they are able to evolve and adapt to these rapid changes.

Automation

The technology on show at EDS demonstrated some of the major advances being made in automation. There was a range of mechatronic devices on show and it is easy to see how these technologies could be implemented within robotics and for the automation of more production processes.

Newer and more effective rapid prototyping technologies were also on show, which are continually making it cheaper and easier to rapidly design and test ideas to help inform the usability of the final products.

User Centric Design

Whether it is a small component being optimised for assembly or a final product optimised for comfort and usability, user centred design is clearly becoming more prevalent.

Designers in close contact to users are likely to build a sense of empathy for their users and hence develop more pleasing products.

The implementation of user centred design methods means products: reduce misuse, are safer to use and meet a user’s expectations and requirements. This in turn can lead to increased product sales and a reduction in the costs incurred by customer services.

Source: http://www.engineering-design-show.co.uk/gallery/

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Internet of things, plextek

IoT Security in a Fragmented Marketplace

Rob Karplinski - Project Engineer, Embedded Systems

By: Rob Karpinski
Project Engineer, Embedded Systems

22nd March 2018

Home » Product Design

Since the rise of IoT, companies and manufacturers both large and small have rushed to try and capitalise on this growing technology and, arguably, there are now a lot of competing communication and connection methods for IoT products out there.

A lot of these are from the Eastern marketplace and are commonly produced by China to offer consumers a “cheap” alternative to Western products, provided by companies like Apple, Philips or Hewlett Packard.

This raises a couple of security concerns as consumers now face a commercial marketplace with a lot of similar looking products that all vaguely do the same thing but connect to the internet in different ways. A driving force in the popularity of Chinese products is their price, after all, why would you pay £179 for a Nest Cam Outdoor when you can get a cheaper Xiongmai camera module for a fraction of the price?

The Mirai Botnet

One example of unsecured IoT devices being exploited was the Mirai botnet scandal in 2016. To gain a competitive advantage in the computer game, Minecraft three college students unwittingly unleashed a botnet that spread across poorly secured IoT devices and wireless routers, slowing down or stopping completely internet access for nearly the entire eastern United States. The malware infiltrated a dozen different IoT devices (including CCTV cameras and digital video recorders) by scanning the internet for connected technology that still used the manufacturers’ default security setting. Researchers later determined that it infected between 200,000 and 300,000 devices overall (including Xiongmai products, initiating a product recall) – the largest distributed denial of service attack (DDoS) ever launched.

The “S” in IoT stands for Security

Due to the highly networked nature of Internet of Things devices and the rising privacy concerns over how device data is being used (or misused) in the profiling and targeting of people, ensuring a secure IoT device has never been more important for tech product companies that want to be perceived as trusted and innovative market leaders.

Playing an active part in this industry myself (both as an engineer and consumer of tech), I believe engineers should always stay focused on these technical, logical, and ethical challenges when evolving the use of this internet-connected technology. As a consumer, the majority of IoT devices are secure but always ensure you update your devices with the latest firmware and software updates.

Since the rise of IoT, companies and manufacturers both large and small have rushed to try and capitalise on this growing technology and, arguably, there are now a lot of competing communication and connection methods for IoT products out there.

A lot of these are from the Eastern marketplace and are commonly produced by China to offer consumers a “cheap” alternative to Western products, provided by companies like Apple, Philips or Hewlett Packard.

This raises a couple of security concerns as consumers now face a commercial marketplace with a lot of similar looking products that all vaguely do the same thing but connect to the internet in different ways. A driving force in the popularity of Chinese products is their price, after all, why would you pay £179 for a Nest Cam Outdoor when you can get a cheaper Xiongmai camera module for a fraction of the price?

The Mirai Botnet

One example of unsecured IoT devices being exploited was the Mirai botnet scandal in 2016. To gain a competitive advantage in the computer game, Minecraft three college students unwittingly unleashed a botnet that spread across poorly secured IoT devices and wireless routers, slowing down or stopping completely internet access for nearly the entire eastern United States. The malware infiltrated a dozen different IoT devices (including CCTV cameras and digital video recorders) by scanning the internet for connected technology that still used the manufacturers’ default security setting. Researchers later determined that it infected between 200,000 and 300,000 devices overall (including Xiongmai products, initiating a product recall) – the largest distributed denial of service attack (DDoS) ever launched.

The “S” in IoT stands for Security

Due to the highly networked nature of Internet of Things devices and the rising privacy concerns over how device data is being used (or misused) in the profiling and targeting of people, ensuring a secure IoT device has never been more important for tech product companies that want to be perceived as trusted and innovative market leaders.

Playing an active part in this industry myself (both as an engineer and consumer of tech), I believe engineers should always stay focused on these technical, logical, and ethical challenges when evolving the use of this internet-connected technology. As a consumer, the majority of IoT devices are secure but always ensure you update your devices with the latest firmware and software updates.

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The Future of Disposable Medical Devices

The Future of Disposable Medical Devices

By: Polly Britton
Project Engineer, Product Design

7th March 2018

Home » Product Design

As one of the few sectors where waste produced is increasing year by year, there is a huge interest in the healthcare industry for disposable devices. The cost benefits of lower lifetime devices include maintenance, sterilisation and ease of convenience. These benefits are driving interest in and demand for medical devices akin to the “razor and cartridge” product model – inherently designed and produced to be, part or completely, disposable.

In the case of healthcare waste, the danger of cross-infection from re-using devices or recycling the waste is considered more important than the conservation of materials and energy. This is why many tools and devices used in hospitals are disposed of after a single use, and all the waste is incinerated. Based on current trends, the amount of waste produced by the healthcare industry is likely to increase over coming years, as more medical products become disposable. This trend can already be observed by looking at the increase in medical waste year-on-year. It is also possible that it may also decrease eventually.

Why make a product disposable?

Despite the culture of being environmentally conscious, all businesses ultimately have to follow financial incentives in order to be competitive in the market. When deciding whether to reuse a product in most industries, the main factors that need to be considered are:

A. How much does the product cost to purchase?
B. How much will it cost to store the product between uses and prepare it for its next use?

The word “cost” here means not only the monetary cost, but the cost in effort and time spent by whoever does the purchasing in the case of “A”, and whoever does the using, storing, and preparation of the product in the case of “B”.

If the “reuse cost”, B, is higher than “purchase cost”, A, the product is usually disposed of after every use. If A is bigger than B the product is kept and re-used. This is similar to the calculation to determine whether to fix a product when it breaks or to buy a new one: Is the cost to repair the product greater than or less than the value of the product?

What makes healthcare products different?

In the case of the healthcare industry, products often need to be sterilised before being used, which is especially important if the product has previously been used on another patient. The cost of disinfecting equipment is high since the staff doing the work need to be trained professionals. This makes the cost to reuse very high compared to other industries. Even after rigorous cleaning and disinfecting, the risk of cross-contamination cannot be eliminated completely, which introduces an additional factor: “risk to patient’s health”, which cannot be quantitatively compared to factors “A” and “B”.

It is the high reuse cost and the additional risk to patients’ health that has resulted in so many healthcare products being designed as single-use, such as gloves, paper gowns, syringes, and some surgical tools. Some of this waste is considered “hazardous” officially and therefore cannot be legally disposed of in landfills, so almost all healthcare waste is incinerated, including a lot of non-hazardous waste produced by hospitals, which is not kept separately.

Why might healthcare products become more disposable?

Advances in manufacturing and automation have decreased the production cost of many products, which has reduced their purchase prices. If this trend continues, products that are now considered too valuable to throw away will become so inexpensive that they will start to be considered disposable. This could include electrical products and complex surgical tools. Furthermore, once these products are designed specifically to be single-use they can be made from cheaper materials and processes that will bring the price down even more.

Why might healthcare products become more disposable?

Although disposing of more waste by incineration causes concern for the environment, in the case of medical technology, keeping costs low allows more people to have access to effective healthcare.

How could products become less disposable?

There is also a way that future advances in technology might reduce the cost of reusing products in the future and hence reduce the incentive to dispose of products in the healthcare industry. If automation can be introduced into the disinfection process for medical products the requirement for trained staff to clean the equipment manually could be greatly reduced, and an automated disinfecting process might even be more effective at reducing the risk of cross-infection. What’s more, the disinfection process could be combined with an automated inventory management system of the type already seen in other industries.

Government regulations and incentives relating to environmental concerns could also have a big impact on the market. For example, medical products in the UK are currently exempt from the Waste Electrical and Electrical Equipment (WEEE) Directive but if that were to change, the cost of making any electrical medical devices disposable would increase.

Conclusion

The future of disposable medical devices is hard to predict since the market is driven by new technology while at the same time advances in technology are driven by market demands. With the advance of inexpensive manufacturing technology, more products may become disposable, but advances in automated sorting, cleaning, and storing could have the opposite effect. In addition, the culture of concern for the environment could also drive the government to change the relevant regulations.

For at least the short-term future, it seems more medical devices will become disposable and medical waste will continue to increase in volume per patient. However, any predictions about the healthcare market more than 20 years from now can only be speculative, due to the fast-paced nature of technological improvements.

As one of the few sectors where waste produced is increasing year by year, there is a huge interest in the healthcare industry for disposable devices. The cost benefits of lower lifetime devices include maintenance, sterilisation and ease of convenience. These benefits are driving interest in and demand of medical devices akin to the “razor and cartridge” product model – inherently designed and produced to be, part or completely, disposable.

In the case of healthcare waste, the danger of cross-infection from re-using devices or recycling the waste is considered more important than the conservation of materials and energy. This is why many tools and devices used in hospitals are disposed of after a single use, and all the waste is incinerated. Based on current trends, the amount of waste produced by the healthcare industry is likely to increase over coming years, as more medical products become disposable. This trend can already be observed by looking at the increase in medical waste year-on-year. It is also possible that it may also decrease eventually.

Why make a product disposable?

Despite the culture of being environmentally conscious, all businesses ultimately have to follow financial incentives in order to be competitive in the market. When deciding whether to reuse a product in most industries, the main factors that need to be considered are:

A. How much does the product cost to purchase?
B. How much will it cost to store the product between uses and prepare it for its next use?

The word “cost” here means not only the monetary cost, but the cost in effort and time spent by whoever does the purchasing in the case of “A”, and whoever does the using, storing, and preparation of the product in the case of “B”.

If the “reuse cost”, B, is higher than “purchase cost”, A, the product is usually disposed of after every use. If A is bigger than B the product is kept and re-used. This is similar to the calculation to determine whether to fix a product when it breaks or to buy a new one: Is the cost to repair the product greater than or less than the value of the product?

What makes healthcare products different?

In the case of the healthcare industry, products often need to be sterilised before being used, which is especially important if the product has previously been used on another patient. The cost of disinfecting equipment is high since the staff doing the work need to be trained professionals. This makes the cost to reuse very high compared to other industries. Even after rigorous cleaning and disinfecting, the risk of cross-contamination cannot be eliminated completely, which introduces an additional factor: “risk to patient’s health”, which cannot be quantitatively compared to factors “A” and “B”.

It is the high reuse cost and the additional risk to patients’ health that has resulted in so many healthcare products being designed as single-use, such as gloves, paper gowns, syringes, and some surgical tools. Some of this waste is considered “hazardous” officially and therefore cannot be legally disposed of in landfills, so almost all healthcare waste is incinerated, including a lot of non-hazardous waste produced by hospitals, which is not kept separately.

Why might healthcare products become more disposable?

Advances in manufacturing and automation have decreased the production cost of many products, which has reduced their purchase prices. If this trend continues, products that are now considered too valuable to throw away will become so inexpensive that they will start to be considered disposable. This could include electrical products and complex surgical tools. Furthermore, once these products are designed specifically to be single-use they can be made from cheaper materials and processes that will bring the price down even more.

Although disposing of more waste by incineration causes concern for the environment, in the case of medical technology, keeping costs low allows more people to have access to effective healthcare.

How could products become less disposable?

There is also a way that future advances in technology might reduce the cost of reusing products in the future and hence reduce the incentive to dispose of products in the healthcare industry. If automation can be introduced into the disinfection process for medical products the requirement for trained staff to clean the equipment manually could be greatly reduced, and an automated disinfecting process might even be more effective at reducing the risk of cross-infection. What’s more, the disinfection process could be combined with an automated inventory management system of the type already seen in other industries.

Government regulations and incentives relating to environmental concerns could also have a big impact on the market. For example, medical products in the UK are currently exempt from the Waste Electrical and Electrical Equipment (WEEE) Directive but if that were to change, the cost of making any electrical medical devices disposable would increase.

Conclusion

The future of disposable medical devices is hard to predict since the market is driven by new technology while at the same time advances in technology are driven by market demands. With the advance of inexpensive manufacturing technology, more products may become disposable, but advances in automated sorting, cleaning, and storing could have the opposite effect. In addition, the culture of concern for the environment could also drive the government to change the relevant regulations.

For at least the short-term future, it seems more medical devices will become disposable and medical waste will continue to increase in volume per patient. However, any predictions about the healthcare market more than 20 years from now can only be speculative, due to the fast-paced nature of technological improvements.

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