Environmental sustainability is a growing concern among consumers and businesses. Like other industries, the healthcare sector is engaged in major sustainability initiatives. Medical device engineers and managers will be responsible for developing new products to meet greener expectations and sustainability objectives. Developing ecofriendly medical devices will require supply chain collaboration, materials science expertise, and an appetite for experimentation and discovery.
As device developers embark on these projects, materials selection will be central to meeting many sustainability goals. By partnering with progressive suppliers, design engineers can explore how to integrate more ecofriendly chemistries and materials into their latest innovations.
Sustainable Medical Devices
Device developers and their suppliers can collaborate to introduce products made with sustainable manufacturing methods, materials, components, and chemicals. Device engineers can partner with suppliers who have deep materials science knowledge and robust research and development capabilities. In development of greener devices, it’s also important for there to be strong relationships between materials providers and their raw materials vendors.
Oftentimes, there must be extensive physical testing when ecofriendly substitute materials are used in place of traditional inputs. Through extensive exploration and testing, expert materials scientists can determine if the alternative approach delivers the necessary performance characteristics and meets biocompatibility requirements. Biocompatibility and eco-compatibility often go hand in hand, as what is harmful to the body also tends to be bad for the earth. Still, any new formulations must be rigorously evaluated.
For example, when an advanced materials provider set out to develop an ecofriendly alternative to a polyvinyl chloride (PVC)-based medical foam, it worked with multiple raw materials vendors to devise a solution. With these suppliers, the company explored and tested alternative materials to determine which would offer the same tensile strength and softness in the finished product, among other variables. It also had to find an earth-friendly bill of materials that was cost competitive. The company’s efforts were successful and, in November 2015, it unveiled its new single- coated PVC-free foam offering all of the same benefits as a traditional PVC foam, including conformability, elasticity, cushioning, flexibility, and breathability. (See Figure 1)
Such collaborative R&D also went into the creation of a barrier film for ostomy applications made of a unique composition that eliminates the use of PVC, polyvinylidene chloride (PVdC) and plasticizers. Also known as phthalates, plasticizers are used to soften PVC and make it more flexible. They have been cited for both their harmful impact on the environment and for their potentially negative effects on human health. (See Figure 2)
Environmentally Preferable Purchasing
Central to the initiative of developing ecofriendly products is the idea of purchasing products that are environmentally friendly. Care for the environment often falls within the realm of corporate social responsibility (CSR). CSR can include environmental stewardship as well as safety, community service, charitable giving, and other focus areas. To demonstrate their commitment to being socially responsible businesses, many large healthcare institutions are collaborating on sustainability initiatives.
For instance, there is Health Care Without Harm®, an international coalition that counts hospitals, healthcare systems, medical professionals, and community groups among its members. On its website, the organization describes a mission to “implement ecologically sound and healthy alternatives to healthcare practices that pollute the environment and contribute to disease.” The group believes the healthcare industry can wield its buying power to shift the economy toward sustainable, safer practices and products.
Another collaboration, the Sustainability Roadmap for Hospitals, is the work of more than 30 hospitals and healthcare systems and almost 20 industry associations and professional societies, including the American Hospital Association. Its dynamic roadmap, hosted at www.sustainabilityroadmap.org, offers free tools and resources to help healthcare businesses integrate sustainable practices.