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December 12, 2023
9 Min Read
Panuwat Dangsungnoen/iStock via Getty Images
At a Glance
- Almost a quarter of the US population will be 65 and older by the year 2040
- Younger populations are driving agenda for medtech manufacturers to embrace sustainability
- Sustainability will continue to become more of a pressure point for medtech companies
With great technological advancement comes great responsibility, evidently. That’s the overall theme for what we should expect when it comes to the development of medical technologies as we approach 2024 and into the near future.
While the healthcare industry continues to face post-pandemic financial and societal challenges as the population ages, expectations shift, and certain policies revert to pre-pandemic protocols, the pressures faced by manufacturers of medtech devices are mounting in unprecedented ways.
Challenges related to workforce shortages, supply chain issues, environmental health concerns, inflation, and reimbursement shifts are affecting how healthcare is delivered and how caregiving tools are produced at every turn. As a result, concepts such as sustainability, accessibility, ease-of-use, and artificial intelligence will continue to have a prevailing influence on the types of devices that are manufactured moving forward, including those involving the use of plastics.
Here, we present five expected trends for the medical device industry based on the opinions and experiences of subject matter experts who recently spoke with PlasticsToday on the topic.
1. More focus on eco-friendly materials
The dichotomy that exists between the growth of an aging population and heightened attention to protection of the environment among the general public is an interesting one. As of November 2022, adults aged 65 and older represented approximately 17% of the US population, according to the most recent findings of the Administration on Aging, part of the US Department of Health and Human Services. This number is expected to grow to 22% by the year 2040, continuing the pattern of more Americans expected to live longer. However, it’s the younger populations that are said to be responsible for driving the agenda for manufacturers (and others) to protect the environment by providing goods and services that rely on renewable sources of energy, natural polymers, and other eco-friendly initiatives. Whether it’s evidenced through opinion polls, social media communication, or spending habits, people are becoming less likely to engage with products and services that are not proven and promoted to be beneficial to the environment, according to Len Czuba, president of Czuba Enterprises Inc., a medical device product development consultancy based in Chicago. “More companies are being forced to consider making their products out of eco-friendly materials — products that can be made from polymers derived from natural products such as plants and sugars,” says Czuba. “I think we will see the medtech industry be more focused on and placing more effort into sustainability, recyclability, reuse, and cleaning up the environment in 2024. We’ve seen this happening already, but there’s certainly going to be a bigger, renewed effort as governments become more involved and people become more outspoken about environmental issues. This will continue to become more of a pressure point for companies to prove that they are doing this type of work.”
Examples of eco-friendly polymers include polylactic acid, which can be made from sugar beets or sugar cane. The manufacturers of these polymers take the chemicals found in bio-derived plants and convert them into long-chain precursors to polymers, and then into such polymers as polyolefins or polylactic acid. “These are known as ‘biopolymers,’” says Czuba. “They’re readily available and their costs are coming down as the market grows, as with anything else.”
From a sustainability perspective, Czuba said the industry would contribute much to the effort by forming a coordinated method of collecting and recovering medical devices that have been used. “After sorting and safely processing them to eliminate sterility and sharps hazards, they’ll return the useful materials to the feedstream for new single-use medical devices,” he says. “It would not be difficult to take the materials of construction of the devices, for example FDA Class 2 devices that are for short-term use and have no contact with the body or tissue, and, with proper quality control, blend the reground polymer with virgin resin to mold or extrude new devices.”
Czuba said medical device companies can also assist the sustainability effort by working to design devices that minimize the number of different materials used in those devices. “They can also add features that simplify disassembly, making it intuitive to know what can be sent for reprocessing and what components should be discarded or used in non-medical markets.”
2. Additive manufacturing gains more momentum
Once considered to be an overall novelty, the process of additive manufacturing, or the joining of materials to make objects from 3D model data, usually layer upon layer, is today a widespread manufacturing practice.
In the medtech market, there’s room for growth in the development of customizable, patient-centric products produced in low quantities, which represents a bit of an ideological manufacturing shift, says Czuba.
“The process that makes individualized products is going to make a big difference in the future,” he said. As an example of a smaller-volume product need, Czuba cites the use of prosthetics in the pediatric population for children who have undergone a limb amputation. “Over time, these children are going to need different-sized orthopedics put into their prosthetic limbs, and these products will need to grow along with them,” he explains. “In the past, these children would wear one size until they greatly outgrew it before moving into a small, medium, or large. But these days we can make sizes to specifically fit the patient at a relatively low cost. Additive manufacturing is a big process that certainly will make its headway into the medical device industry going forward for low-volume production requirements in this regard.”
Although most of the products produced by industry today are done at a high volume, Czuba sees a pathway to more tailor-made items where there’s opportunity to fill a niche to meet a need. “As companies develop more of these specialty products, they’ll get clearance to begin to use them for tens of thousands per year,” he said. “With the production rates now possible, small-volume and medium-volume needs can be met with additive manufacturing, helping companies avoid the cost and time required to build a mold for each size or component. The additional benefit of this process is the ability to make changes or improvements to the component or device, as user feedback helps make the product even better.”
3. Continued reliance on artificial intelligence
Collecting and analyzing data has become an arduous task within any industry today. Data continue to grow at a faster rate than ever before, with more than 90% of the world’s data said to be created since 2016. The volume of data across the world is said to double in size, which will result in some 150 trillion gigabytes of real-time data to be analyzed for various purposes by 2025, according to a report by Forbes.
As this consumption of information grows, there will increasingly be a need for assistance in data analysis and applying it to industry-specific purposes. The proliferation of artificial intelligence (AI) should serve as an advantage for sifting through the abundance of data and implementing it for the benefit of patient care through advanced medical technologies.
Artificial intelligence will be needed to sort through a flood of data generated every day. Image courtesy of Metamorworks/iStock via Getty Images.
“Everyone, including medical professionals, are bombarded with tons of data today,” says Mitch Maiman, president and co-founder of Intelligent Product Solutions, a global product design and development company based in Hauppauge, NY, that specializes in medical devices. “There are new procedures, medications, and diagnostic results being generated all the time. It will be interesting to see how AI can attack huge datasets to come up with recommendations for the best treatments and medications customized to serve particular individuals. New insights are also coming from the use of AI for interpreting medical images and large dataset analysis for disease detection.”
Tools for remote medical monitoring and diagnostics continue to be an important area for new medtech devices, according to Maiman, who said that he also envisions an increased availability of biocompatible materials becoming available to help minimize adverse reactions among patients. He also sees potential for more bioactive polymers that contain properties for improving implants and drug delivery to support infection control.
4. Improving technology trust through ease of use
When considering the sheer volume at which people are carrying smartphones, tablets, and other types of computing devices today, technology has undoubtedly become ubiquitous. As more people become more accustomed to relying on digital technology, not coincidentally, they have also become more accepting of its use in healthcare. One recent survey found that 80 percent of respondents reported having accessed telemedicine platforms, a figure that has risen from 72% just two years ago. Meanwhile, consumers in the United States doubled their use of wearable healthcare devices, including smart watches, monitors, and fitness trackers, between 2020 and 2021.
At the same time, however, overall trust in technology among the general public has reportedly declined because of concerns involving privacy, data breaches, and other security-related issues.
Both Czuba and Maiman agree that paying more attention to accessibility and simplicity in medical device design will engender greater trust in the technology among users.
“We need to continue to come up with ways to make sure that our products are able to be understood by the common user — the non-trained, non-technical user — so that it becomes intuitive for use and doesn’t put the patient or loved one in danger,” says Czuba.
Maiman sees adoption of medical technology improving among the growing older population, which may rely on these devices on a daily basis, assuming that manufacturers continue to focus on ease of use.
“Integration of wireless monitoring technologies, in particular, can help ensure that medical device products are being used according to the proper protocols and that feedback is reaching the right caregivers and family members,” says Maiman.
5. Next-generation sequencing will advance newborn screening
A recent study conducted by Revvity Omics, an organization that specializes in health science solutions, has expressed the value of proactive, next-generation sequencing (NGS)-based screening of newborns to better enable healthcare professionals to uncover a range of risks while allowing for earlier interventions and personalized treatment plans.
As NGS becomes more accessible to the general public, harnessing this tool could have a profound impact on the health and well-being of families and future generations, says Dr. Madhuri Hegde, chief scientific officer at Revvity. “Next-generation sequencing is providing efficient, holistic insights into the human genome, which has become a viable option for population-wide screening, including within newborn screening,” said Hedge.
The study, “At-Risk Genomic Findings for Pediatric-Onset Disorders From Genome Sequencing vs Medically Actionable Gene Panel in Proactive Screening of Newborns and Children,” found that genome sequencing uncovered potential pediatric-onset diagnoses in 8.2% of apparently healthy children, with 46.8% of findings associated with high-penetrance conditions. By contrast, only 2.1% of children screened with a panel of 268 genes for medically actionable pediatric conditions were found to be at risk for developing pediatric-onset disease.
The study suggests that, when compared with a gene panel, genome sequencing uncovered more potential pediatric-onset diagnoses among apparently healthy children.
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