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5 ways plastics have transformed our healthcare industry

Written by MS
31/08/2020 12:00:30

It’s hard to imagine a world without plastics. Right now, you are reading this on a laptop, PC, phone or tablet - every one of these devices has plastic it in somewhere. Whether it’s the casing, keyboard or internal workings like the fan, every piece of technology we use daily would not exist without some form of the plastic component. This is, of course, true of medical devices too. 

Worldwide healthcare has come a long way since the turn of the 20th century due to the advent of materials such as PVC (polyvinyl chloride), which was patented in 1913. In fact, plastics are so engrained in the healthcare industry of the 21st century, National Geographic went as far as to question whether modern-day medical care would exist without plastics. 

While there is still work to be done in terms of sustainability and recyclability of some plastic materials, we cannot help but be in awe at the number of lives that are saved on a daily basis thanks to breakthroughs and equipment that has its routes in plastic. Everything from syringes to doctor’s scrubs and even hospital door handles are made entirely - or partially - with a range of cheap plastics that are easy to mass-produce. 

We are all more conscious of our healthcare systems than ever before. For us in the UK, the NHS has always been a lifeline, but now, perhaps more than ever before, we are all incredibly thankful for the hard work they do on a daily basis. From the nurses and doctors to porters and medical equipment transporters, we would be lost without you. 

In this blog post from The Plastic People, we are going to take a look at some of the key plastic-based innovations that helped revolutionise the healthcare industry. These are pieces of equipment that are used daily in hospital environments, and make caring for patients easier for all key workers. 

If you are the owner of a small business or run an office and are thinking about how you can do more to support the NHS and the healthcare industry, then it’s time to make your environment COVID-secure. Purchase social distancing and protective screens from us today, stop the spread of the virus and make sure our NHS is not overloaded. Together, we can beat this. 

1. Sterilisation and safety:

The top priority of hospital workers - after their patients - is the cleanliness of their environment and medical equipment. For hospitals and other healthcare facilities to work efficiently, they need to make sure they are curing patients and not allowing them to catch new illnesses while they are being treated. Plastics have transformed how sterilisation works in the medical sector and makes sure cross-contamination is nigh on impossible. 

Personal protective equipment (PPE) has been a common topic in recent months - particularly after the debacle regarding importing extra supplies from Turkey - and, without PPE, the spread of coronavirus would undoubtedly be extreme. Everything from the clear face visors to gloves and aprons has its routes in plastic materials. Gloves are generally made from latex - which is sterile when packaged to make sure it is safe - and visors can be made from a range of flexible plastics at low costs (pennies per screen). It’s hard to imagine a safe hospital environment without access to this equipment. 

On top of PPE for hospital workers, plastics also allow for the creation of sterile and single-use equipment. The most prolific example of this is syringes. Syringes (used for a whole range of things from administering medicine to taking blood) are mass-produced through an injection moulding process. This means they are affordable and can be thrown away after use - again defeating any chances of virus transfer. Plastics are also generally more durable than glass and so will not be broken before use or when being transported. 

Perhaps most importantly, plastics can be created with antimicrobial additives - while this sounds complex and alien, it’s really very simple. These additives effectively repel various bacterias and diseases, allowing surfaces to stay clean easier. You can find these plastic agents in a range of hospital locations (including on door handles!).

2. Healthcare at home:

It’s been particularly important over the past few months for as many people to be cared for in-home environments as possible to free up bed space at our hospitals. Again, plastics come into play when thinking about how we are cared for when outside of professional medical facilities. 

Blister packs are pre-formed bits of plastics (sometimes foil) which home your solid pills/drugs. Everything from over-the-counter paracetamol to prescribed medication comes in these nifty and lightweight containers - and we’re sure you’ll have a few laying around the house somewhere! On top of being extremely light, they are cheap to produce and easy to manufacture thousands of at a time to meet demands. Occasionally, you might also receive pills in a bottle-like container. Guess what - it’s also made of plastic!

It’s amazing to think about how plastics are part of our daily life and routines without us even taking much notice of them! Other medical devices you might find in your home that are made from plastics include various types of walking aids from crutches to walking sticks, in addition to items such as inhalers for asthmatics. 

3. Protecting the community:

More and more plastic products have found their way into our local communities as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The government has transitioned from national test and trace systems to localised ones as an example of how important it is to start by protecting your own local community first. 

The plastic product we are most used to seeing in the community now is, of course, protective screens. Whether they are transparent or translucent, free-standing or on top of tables, all these sneeze guards and social distancing screens are generally made from some form of plastic. Perspex, plexiglass and polycarbonate are all key in the manufacture of these different screens and systems. For instance, polycarbonate - which we use to make our translucent guards - is 200 times stronger than glass. 

These plastic sheets have been around for months now in supermarkets and, as more businesses open up, we are starting to find them all over the community. Gyms, barbers, pubs and even nail bars are installing these protective screens in order to operate and help stop transmission. As offices and schools begin to reopen, they too are starting to adopt some preventive measures. 

If you are a business owner or staff member at a school, you need to think about what protective measures you can put in place. The coronavirus, unfortunately, is not going anywhere anytime soon. Check out the range on our website or contact our sales team for bespoke services: 

4. PVC:

In our introduction, we mentioned that PVC has revolutionised the medical world in the past century, and is now used in some 40% of healthcare implements. And we weren’t joking! It’s literally everywhere! We wanted to go a bit more in-depth about this plastic in particular and explore just how it has become the most important material in healthcare. 

PVC, while being around for over 100 years, has only been a part of the medical industry since the 1960s when it was determined safe and could be sterilised. There were, originally, concerns about the chemicals used to make the material flexible (known as plasticisers), but continual development defeated any issues. 

With that said, the star characteristic of PVC is its flexibility. You might have come across the material in construction before as it is used in industries such as plumbing to make tubing. Its lightweight means it can simply sit behind walls/under floors, and its flexibility means it can be manoeuvred into tight spaces. In a medical environment, these characteristics are also beneficial. PVC is likewise used for tubing in hospitals, but, in this case for catheters, which are used for the transfer for medicine. You might also find PVC tubing attached to ventilator machines which have been key in the fight against COVID-19. 

Thankfully, PVC can also be widely recycled. While some medical waste has to be incinerated due to health and safety concerns, over 740,000 tonnes of PVC are recycled throughout Europe each year, making it one of the most sustainable plastics being used in the medical sector. 

5. Prosthetics:

For our final example of how plastics have revolutionised the healthcare industry, we are talking all things prosthetics. Plastic prosthetics improve the lives of countless amputees. They are used by people from all walks of society from office-based workers to Olympic athletes bringing home gold for their country. Plastics have made prosthetics more affordable and comfortable over the years. Recent developments have even seen engineers turning plastic water bottles into prosthetics - now that takes recycling to an entirely new level!

Early prosthetics were made from wood and metal. This introduced a whole heap of issues as these materials are heavier, more expensive and less easy to mass-produce. Wood in particular also degrades over time, meaning prosthetics had to be changed more routinely - again, adding further costs. 

Advancements in plastics, and the development of materials such as silicone, allow for prosthetics to be more carefully created in-line with the needs of the patient. This means they fit better, feel more comfortable and require less energy to operate. 

This is an area of the medical industry that continues to advance year-on-year, with more cost-effective designs being created and new ideas manifested. Carbon fibre limbs are becoming more prevalent, and the door is open for even more materials to become part of the journey. 

So there you have it, our breakdown of 5 key areas in the medical profession that have been aided by plastics. Many of these advancements have only been made in the past 100 years, and so you can really see how plastics are changing the world continually - and for the better. It is true, medical care would not be able to operate to the same standard we expect without plastics. 

Now, these benefits are most acutely felt in wealthy countries such as ours and the USA where funding is high. The coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated the extreme wealth gap that exists throughout the world, and poorer countries are, as a result, disproportionately affected by the crisis. If you want to make a difference, we suggest donating to an organisation such as UNICEF or Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) and help make the world a fairer place. 
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