How plastics changed the medical industry

How Plastics have Changed the Medical Industry

Plastics, especially single-use plastics, are often heavily criticized, even if they are recyclable.

The truth, however, is that in some environments, they are not just useful but necessary. The medical industry, for example, is heavily reliant on them.

Here are just some of the ways plastics are facilitating and enhancing patient care.

Sterile equipment and packaging

Probably the most obvious way plastics are benefitting the medical sector is in the creation of sterile equipment and packaging. Some areas of medicine involve a high degree of exposure to blood and other bodily fluids and this can create a serious health hazard (an issue which was highlighted by the discovery of AIDS in the 1980s).

Use-once plastic equipment is guaranteed to be safe to use and hence eliminates any concerns about errors in the sterilization process (human or technical).

Use-once plastic equipment also relieves some of the pressure on medical staff as they simply dispose of it after use, instead of having to oversee its sterilization. The waste produced can be sorted by non-medical staff in preparation for recycling or safe disposal.

Even when bodily fluids are not an issue, plastic wrapping makes it possible to transport medicines safely. It keeps them protected from environmental pollutants and helps prevent deliberate tampering (bad actors), potentially-serious accidents (children or animals consuming medicine) and genuine human errors.

Plastic packaging can also make it easier for some patients to receive treatment at home. For example, they can be given a set of use-once syringes filled with the exact medication that they need.

This means that medical staff can do the tricky work of measuring the dose as one batch task and patients (or local carers) can take care of the easier process of injecting it.

Lighter and more comfortable assistive products and prosthetics

Eyeglasses/contact lenses and hearing aids are now much lighter and more comfortable than they used to be, thanks to the use of plastics. Hearing aids are also more effective (admittedly, this is not only due to the use of plastics, but it has helped).

It’s easier to produce intricate prosthetics such as artificial heart valves and possible to make commonplace prosthetics more comfortable to wear thanks to the malleability and durability of plastics.

More advanced forms of prosthetics are also in a process of improvement, largely thanks to the plastics industry.

This can be seen in the results which can now be achieved by sportspeople who use prosthetics. They would have been unimaginable without the advances made possible by plastics.

Innovative, “on-demand” and customized care

While this is still a relatively niche use for plastics, it may be the most exciting due to the possibilities it opens up for the future. As the years have gone by, healthcare has changed from being essentially reactive (the patient noticed symptoms and went to a doctor) to proactive (health screenings) and is now in the process of becoming not only predictive but highly customized.

The plastics industry, plus 3D printers, could provide a cost-effective way of delivering “tailor-made”, innovative treatments on-demand. This would potentially be a huge step forward in health-care.

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