The Future of Disposable Medical Devices
By: Polly Britton
Project Engineer, Product Design
7th March 2018
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.
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.
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.