The global pandemic caused companies to redirect resources to deal with the immediate threat of COVID-19, but dealing with the coronavirus also helped spur creativity that will lead to future improvements, according to one research and development leader at Becton, Dickinson and Co.
"If we look at the last 12-18 months, the pandemic has really fundamentally changed the future of health care in this nation," Jim Semler said May 5 during his keynote presentation as part of the Healthcare Elastomers Conference organized by Rubber & Plastics News.
"COVID-19 fundamentally changed business," said Semler, R&D director of the Materials Science and Engineering Center of Excellence in the medication delivery solutions business unit at Franklin Lakes, N.J.-based BD.
Drastic changes happened quickly during the early stages of COVID-19 as health care workers struggled to figure out how to limit virus transmission while still tending to patients. The lack of personal protective equipment early on also caused medical workers to alter their typical approaches in an effort to remain safe.
"The implication to material sets was huge from that perspective," he said during the virtual conference.
Increased disinfecting as well as limiting visitation became obvious. But health care workers also undertook other less obvious protection methods such as administering medicines from farther away using extended tubing, for example, Semler said.
"If you were to think about through all this hardship there is somewhat of a silver lining. And that's really through some of the innovation," he said. "Crisis does catapult innovation."
During the pandemic, companies have worked together to cooperate and focus on innovation to help meet health care's immediate needs, he said.
"There was a generalized unity and commitment to this," Semler said. "But, then, it also sparked a lot of creativity."
Typical R&D projects were put aside as companies focused on the most immediate needs created by the pandemic. Developments that would have taken more time without the urgency of COVID-19 have broken through, Semler said.
"People were getting super creative in how to do things," he said, adding there is hope that accelerated advancements over the past year will pay dividends in future health care in ways that have yet to be seen.
Semler pointed to some very specific areas he sees as key to emerging innovations, including the use of additive manufacturing and robotics, digital solutions and artificial intelligence, and responsive materials. Smart devices, nanotechnology and biomimicry also will help play a part.
In the areas of responsive materials, he spoke about the potential to have elastomers move beyond being a part of a health care product to becoming the product itself.
This, for example, could involve creation of an elastomeric product that could be worn by a patient to help monitor heart rate through expansion, he said.
"When you think about all these different things I've talked about today, where are the opportunities for the future?" he said. "If you just concentrate on one, you are going to miss the mark. It's really about how you bring all these technologies together.
"If you want to make a good device, you have to have three major things: You have to have the right material, you have to have a good design, and you have to be able to manufacture," Semler said. "If you can't do any of those three things, you're never going to have a good device and you're not going to really help the health care system.
"So from a device material perspective, smart and responsive device materials will really help with the next-generation medical devices," Semler said.