The Case for Single-Use Medical Devices

by David Bass / August 28, 2020

The medical device industry is continuously evolving to incorporate both emerging technology and leading medical practices. Throughout our 40-year history of designing and manufacturing medical devices, Benchmark has witnessed many of the factors driving this market's transformation. Above all is the need to improve patient outcomes and manage healthcare costs. Other innovation drivers include ever-developing regulations, advancements in engineering and manufacturing, and new trends in patient care. One of the more recent changes is the rising prominence of sophisticated, single-use medical devices. While consumable medical instruments and supplies have been in use for decades, newer technological advancements enable safer, more cost-effective disposable devices for a variety of medical applications.

Until recently, devices such as endoscopes and guides used in laparoscopy, arthroscopy, laryngoscopy, colonoscopy, and other gastrointestinal procedures, were designed to be reusable. Among other reasons, the optical technology for the small, precise cameras used in these devices was expensive to produce, making reuse necessary to manage costs. After manufacturing, the devices are sterilized in-package and engineered to be chemically and mechanically sanitized and disinfected after each use to be used again with a different patient. 

Benchmark engineers utilize the latest electronics assembly, design, and manufacturing capabilities to significantly lower medical device development costs. One major force driving this field's advancement is improvements in complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS) and light-emitting diode (LED) technology. The development of these technologies has fundamentally changed how manufacturers design camera technology, allowing significant reductions in the size, weight, and power (SWaP) of devices. Over time, the cost of developing and manufacturing these cameras has decreased through improvements in adjacent manufacturing techniques, including automation. The introduction of precision robotics on a semi-automated production line allows for consistent, repeatable processes that speed time-to-market while lowering production costs.

Reducing the size and manufacturing costs of these technologies has prompted a shift from reusable to single-use devices, coinciding with the transition from traditional open surgery to minimally invasive procedures. But what does this shift to single-use devices mean for sustainability, patient safety, and healthcare costs?

While it’s easy to imagine that single-use medical devices would lead to an increase in waste, a point to consider is their recyclability. It’s a common misconception that single-use devices increase the amount of biohazard waste in the environment. These medical devices are often designed with recyclable components to purposefully reduce waste and minimize their environmental impact while maintaining their functionality and efficacy. It is also worth noting that traditional reusable devices require a disinfection process after every use that may involve sanitizing chemicals, autoclaves, or other specialized reprocessing equipment. These disinfection practices are in themselves resource-intensive processes that create waste byproducts.

As for patient safety, both reusable and single-use medical devices must be safe and effective by design. And while there is always a risk for infection during any operation, there is interest in the medical community to investigate whether single-use devices reduce infection risk compared to reprocessed devices. One significant advantage is that single-use devices offer from a product traceability standpoint; each device is used once on a single patient.

What does this all mean when it comes to the cost of healthcare? Today, single-use devices are generally more expensive on a per-patient basis than reusable devices. However, the difference in the total cost of use between reusable and single-use devices is narrowing. Between the additional costs of the sanitizing and disinfecting processes for reusable devices, and the decreasing development and production costs for single-use devices, more and more single-use devices are being introduced to the market. Another advantage of single-use devices is that it may be simpler to calculate healthcare costs since each device is used only once, and there is no cost amortization between patients.

When it comes down to it, improving patient outcomes and reducing healthcare costs are the main goals when developing any new medical technology. Single-use devices will never wholly replace reusable devices, but it is clear that they constitute a significant trend among the leading medical device manufacturers. And when it comes to emerging technologies, Benchmark is investing in the talent and technical capabilities to support the development and manufacture of these new devices.

It's Benchmark's legacy of medical technologies and our passion for innovation, along with our leading design, engineering, and manufacturing expertise, that makes us the partner of choice when it matters.

Manufacturing Medical

about the author

David Bass

David Bass is a Business Development Executive, supporting the medical technologies sector. With over 20 years in manufacturing services, David has a keen eye for the discovery of disruptive technologies.

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