Patient safety, reducing health-care-acquired infections, the constant effort to improve procedure results and a growing interest in recycling some disposable medical products continue to create opportunities for materials companies that supply the medical industry.
“The trend toward creating better patient outcomes has sharpened the focus on the engineering of plastics resins to help products and devices function better,” said Larry Johnson, global health-care marketing director for compounder and distributor PolyOne Corp. of Avon Lake, Ohio. “The medical industry wants smart polymers that help products function better, and they also want products and materials that help counter health-care-acquired infections.”
“There is continued interest in antimicrobials” to reduce HAI because companies are using stronger disinfectants, Johnson said during an interview at the Medical Design & Manufacturing West show, held Feb. 14-16 in Anaheim. “There is a growing need for more highly engineered materials.”
Tom O'Brien, global health-care product marketing director at Sabic Innovative Plastics in Pittsfield, Mass., agreed.
“The big push now is to develop solutions to prevent HAI from occurring,” said O'Brien. “Intense and rising focus among regulators, hospitals and consumers to protect patients from harm ... is putting health-care device makers under tremendous pressure to enhance their [products] with antimicrobial properties and other safety attributes.”
Even the market isn't sure what it needs, he said, “but everyone is looking for customized compounds because there is no off-the-shelf requirement.”
Materials companies have to know what microorganisms they are trying to kill, the functionality of the device and how to provide a solution, often through an antimicrobial.
“You have to understand the base resin and understand how antimicrobial agents interact with the material,” he said.
That need opens the door for an array of products made from new materials, or with antimicrobials, that can be used in surgical and recovery rooms, O'Brien said.
“It could create opportunities for literally anything in a hospital from surgical devices and instruments to sterilization carts, bed rails, hospital beds and wheeled surgical carts,” O'Brien said. “There could also be opportunities with intravenous connectors.”
Another opportunity emerging for materials companies stems from a new interest in recycling and refurbishing of products that have, until now, been viewed as disposable, said Johnson of PolyOne.
“Companies are looking at re-sterilizing what was once [considered] a disposable product and getting those products back into the marketplace, so the materials choices might be different,” he said.
“Those products probably will need more durable materials.”
That is where Eastman Chemical Corp. of Kingsport, Tenn., believes it can leverage the toughness of its Tritan material, which it aims at health-care, packaging and consumer products.
“With the increasing vigilance toward reducing health-care-acquired infections, hospitals are looking for materials with increased chemical resistance,” said Gopal Saraiya, Eastman's market development manager for medical devices.
“Tritan is a clear, tough material that maintains its properties after sterilization.”
In addition, he said the processability of Tritan can often allow manufacturers to reduce secondary operations, such as annealing, which can increase yields and reduce costs.
Helen Sirett, who manages the medical business segment of Eastman's specialty plastics unit, said the company continues to work with brand owners to develop applications for Tritan in the medical market.
“We believe that segment has a number of different possible applications [such as] oxygenators, blood reservoirs and blood-separation devices,” just to name a few, she said.
“You need to work with companies and collaborate with customers in the initial design phase. We continue to see good growth in the medical segment.”
There are other trends that also bode well for materials companies, she said.
“More companies are adopting environmentally preferred guidelines,” she said. For example, Kaiser Permanente in January said it would no longer purchase IV solution bags made from PVC or that contain the plasticizer di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, or IV tubing that contains DEHP, she said.
In addition, “value-based” fees for services are being replaced by fees based on the quality of outcomes because of federal health-care reform, according to Sirett.
“All of that has implications for the materials that are used,” she said.
Sabic's O'Brien agreed. “The white elephant in the room is always [bisphenol A],” he said. “Companies are always looking for new solutions in terms of materials.”
That continued and increasing focus on new engineered materials is one of the reasons PolyOne gave for creating a dedicated health-care team within its Global Specialty Engineered Materials business last month. The team is focusing initially on catheters and tubing, medical devices and pharmaceutical markets.
“It helps to coordinate all the activity in health care,” Johnson said.
Despite rough spots elsewhere in the economy, materials companies see solid single-digit growth in the materials side of the medical marketplace in 2012.
“Last year, the market grew at somewhere around 6-9 percent,” said O'Brien, adding that he expects similar growth this year.
“We've had a good start to 2012,” added Johnson. “I believe that as an industry we are going to see 5-6 percent growth in the marketplace in 2012. Our goal is to outdo the marketplace when it comes to growth. So we will exceed that.”
Johnson said he expects 2-3 percent growth in Europe, 4-6 percent growth in North America, “substantial growth” in South America and another year of double-digit growth in Asia, as that country is still developing its health-care infrastructure.