Plastic Innovations Continue to Revolutionize Medical Care

HMS plastics engineering

As published in “Plastics Engineering” magazine, a publication of the Society of Plastics Engineers.

Some of us are old enough to remember how fragile glass blood bottles didn’t always make it to their intended destination. Others maybe remember them hanging precariously next to the surgeons in TV shows such as M*A*S*H. Too often even a simple misstep would send leave that life-saving bottle crashing to the floor.

Those bottles serve as a clear symbol of how far medical care has advanced due to the widespread introduction of plastics into operating, emergency, and examination rooms.

In contrast to those old M*A*S*H episodes, envision the modern day operating room:

  • Pliable plastic blood bags that are never opened to contaminants;
  • Sanitary plastic intravenous tubes that deliver blood, electrolytes, and medicine;
  • Sterile plastic syringes that are used only once, to help prevent infection;
  • Tactile plastic gloves that protect surgeons and their patients;
  • Medical equipment housed in tough, hygienic plastics;
  • Life-extending, implantable medical devices such as artificial hearts;
  • Operating lights, blood pressure gauges, bandages, respirators, surgical masks, monitors, gauze, tape … the list goes on, right down to the clogs many surgeons wear.

“A simple list of innovative medical devices, equipment, bandages and other items made possible by plastics could fill pages,” said Steve Russell, vice president of plastics for the American Chemistry Council, which sponsors the Plastics Make it Possible® initiative. “And these innovations are surprisingly contemporary – for example, plastics became ubiquitous in the operating room only in the last quarter century.”

Due their inherent physical properties – coupled with decades of research and engineering – plastics make possible many of the life-saving innovations in the operating room and beyond. Two basic advances alone – sterile plastic packaging and disposable medical items – have helped prevent countless infections, one of the world’s leading causes of death.

Many of these advances would seem like miracles to those surgeons dealing with trauma in that Korean theater. Today, these innovations have become standard operating procedure, so to speak.

Beyond trauma care

Helping save a soldier’s life on the operating table may be the most dramatic illustration of the uses of plastics in the medical field. But often it’s in the health care arena outside of trauma care that plastics are transforming millions – even billions – of people’s lives.  Day in and day out, innovations in plastics are helping ease pain, provide comfort and make our lives safer, healthier and longer… often while saving us money.

Here are a few examples – and make special note the number of people impacted.

  • Mobility – Plastic-based prosthetics are helping more and more people remain mobile, in some unexpected ways. More than 675,000 knee replacements are done each year, a number that is expected to rise to 4 million by 2030. Hip replacements are expected to rise from 325,000 per year to nearly 600,000 by 2030. And that’s only in the U.S. In addition, nearly 2 million people in this country have lost a limb, making them candidates for various prosthetics that rely on plastics and other materials. And it’s not always expensive, high-tech solutions to mobility that plastics help deliver – the non-profit Free Wheelchair Mission has shipped more than 670,000 wheelchairs that use a simple plastic lawn chair as the foundation to more than 80 developing countries. Cost: $72.
  • Medicine delivery – Two words: flu season. Millions of plastic syringes wrapped in plastic packaging will be utilized this year in the U.S. alone. And for those who are needle-phobic, plastics help provide a painless way for many of us to get vaccinated. Some flu vaccines now are delivered directly into the nose using a comfortable plastic spray applicator, avoiding the needle. Furthermore, prior to plastics, tamperproof and child-resistant caps did not exist – today they are widely used to help prevent contamination and accidental poisoning. And those caplets that dissolve slowly to control delivery of our medication? They’re made from plastics.
  • Eyesight – Prior to the invention of eyeglasses, the loss of clear vision had no remedy. Glass spectacles, invented in the Middle Ages, were often unaffordable. And fragile. Today’s eyeglasses made with polycarbonate and other plastics are relatively inexpensive, nearly unbreakable and resistant to scratches, making lifelong decent vision nearly universally accessible. Plastic contact lenses that provide better peripheral vision (and don’t get wet in the rain!) are used by more than 125 million people worldwide. And plastic corneas help restore loss of vision from birth defects, injuries and infections.
  • Bandages – Flexible plastic strips began supplanting cotton-based bandages in the 1950s because they held up better to stretching and sweating while protecting wounds. These iconic strips and patches today also deliver medications, such as pharmaceuticals, birth control and nicotine. Newer – and now widely available – liquid bandages made from plastics and a solvent are designed to keep dirt and debris out of wounds and to reduce pain by covering nerve endings. Our military is increasingly using these bandages to cover wounds until full medical care is available. And liquid bandages are often replacing traditional sutures and staples in surgery, where they cause less trauma and do not need to be removed.
  • Combatting malaria – There are more than 200 million cases of malaria worldwide, and an estimated one million people in Africa die of malaria each year – mostly children. Plastic nets treated with insecticides save countless lives, although they have to be treated frequently, which presents significant logistical problems in poor, far-flung places. New technologies allow for long lasting insecticidal nets (LLIN) that remain effective for five years by binding the insecticide to the surface or incorporating it into the plastic. To help further, companies such as BASF and Bayer produce kits to treat nets with insecticides on site – this allows previously untreated plastic nets to be transformed into lifesaving LLINs.
  • Emergency water treatment – When natural disasters destroy sources of clean drinking water, an innovative plastic pouch provides lifesaving relief to survivors. The HydroPack™ is a thin plastic pouch that contains an electrolyte and nutrient-rich powder – when dropped into contaminated water, the pouch’s plastic membranes absorb water while filtering out contaminants. Disaster victims – from New Orleans to Haiti to Kenya – simply punched a straw through the pouch and drank.

What’s on the horizon?

Innovative advances are difficult to predict, but many promising technologies are under development… made possible by plastics.

  • Nonstick plastics that repel bacteria – Scientists have discovered some “slicker” plastics that do not present an attractive surface for bacteria to cling and accumulate. These plastics could be used to make catheters and medical equipment that can get contaminated and gather bacteria-laden “biofilms.”
  • Plastic skin patches that deliver vaccines – Micro-needle patches made from polyvinyl pyrrolidone are being developed that can be mixed with vaccines (including the flu vaccine) and then painlessly applied to skin. The plastic and vaccine would quickly dissolve in bodily fluids, leaving only a water-soluble backing that can easily be discarded. In many parts of the world, poor medical infrastructure and practices can lead to reuse of hypodermic needles, leading to the spread of deadly diseases, but micro-needle patches dissolve and cannot be reused.
  • Heart stents that dissolve – Researchers are developing plastic stents that can open clogged arteries and then slowly dissolve, greatly reducing the likelihood of blood clots, scarring and additional surgeries. These dissolving stents are approved for use in other countries and currently are undergoing U.S. regulatory review.
  • 3-D printing – Touted as the next wave in manufacturing, 3-D “printing” creates objects by building them, layer upon layer, with various materials (often plastics). 3-D printing builds rather than “machines” a piece of material, and computer-aided drawing programs allow custom-built products. Already used to create hearings aids, dental fixtures and prosthetics, 3-D printing using plastics is rapidly advancing into surgical modeling, implants and the manufacture of medical devices.

And these innovations are likely only the beginning since plastics allow medical products to reduce parts, combine functions, and decrease costs – while improving quality. The formidable combination of plastics and engineering will continue to revolutionize medical care as far as we can see.