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Medical device sector slow to embrace sustainability

By: David Eldridge

September 7, 2012

LONDON (Sept. 7, 2:20 p.m. ET) — The medical-devices industry has been slow to embrace the sustainability trend, according to companies working in the sector.

“Our feeling is that most manufacturers are not on top of it,” said Stephen Knowles, managing director of Industrial Design Consultancy, a U.K. company that provides design and development services to medical-device manufacturers. “Many manufacturers say they want to do something, but are not sure what to do.”

IDC is highlighting the need for greater understanding of sustainability in connection with IEC 60601, the international standard for environmentally conscious design of electronic medical equipment. The standard was introduced in 2007, but the third edition released in June this year makes compliance with part 9 obligatory rather than optional, putting pressure on European manufacturers to make their products more sustainable.

Recognizing the lack of awareness about sustainability, IDC has launched an online tool for allowing manufacturers to access data easily for life-cycle analysis of their products. The LCA calculator uses data from EcoInvent, based in St. Gallen, Switzerland, which provides a comprehensive inventory of materials and manufacturing processes and delivers easy-to-interpret results.

Knowles said users can also input materials and manufacturing data about their products, which their suppliers should give to them. Using the calculator, device manufacturers can identify the major environmental impacts of their existing products and then explore “what-if” scenarios for new designs, materials and technologies.

IDC works mainly with smaller companies with limited resources. For the big pharmaceutical companies that produce drug-delivery devices such as inhalers, sustainability has risen up the agenda, according to Orest Lastow, director of medical development at Zenit Design in Sweden. “Pharma companies are used to dealing with compliance; they take it seriously,” he said.

But even large companies are struggling to find a clear direction for their approach to sustainability. Some of the challenges of identifying and implementing sustainability improvements for drug inhalers were discussed in a paper presented by IPAC-RS Devices Working Group, a joint industry group made up of major pharma companies, at a conference called Drug Delivery to the Lungs, held in Edinburgh in December 2011.

“The inhalation industry is behind other high-tech industries, such as electronics, with its adoption of sustainability,” the group said in the paper. “As the principles of sustainability are better understood and more fully applied, should the industry come together to move forward with realizing the gains that come with a sustainable approach, or wait for this to be imposed through legislation?”

Recycling used devices was a major challenge identified in the paper. Some pharma companies have started inhaler take-back programs, but there is no standard model for collection and there are handling concerns due to drug residues and patient bio-contamination.

Morten Nielsen, CEO of Bang & Olufsen Medicom, a drug-delivery device manufacturer based in Denmark, said device makers are currently following a compliance-led strategy for sustainability. Unlike the automotive sector, medical product makers are not using sustainability as a means to come up with products that drive sales growth.

“Is sustainability a differentiator? I don’t think it is yet,” he said.

Nielsen also raises the potential for higher costs when developing and manufacturing a more sustainable medical device. Payment regimes in the health-care markets of European countries are not likely to pay a premium for a product because it is sustainable, he said.

Spiraling health-care costs are under scrutiny worldwide, and this is affecting drug- and device-development trends.

Orest Lastow said: “There is growing pressure on pharma companies to cut costs. And sustainability can add costs.”

Lastow said: “It’s a struggle for companies to balance sustainability with other product-development needs. So they need to be smart about how they do the sustainability work.”