How Selecting Healthcare Polymers for Physicians and Hospitals Can Provide a Competitive Advantage 

User-centered design (UCD) is the process of developing a product from the perspective of how it will be understood and how people will actually use it. Design principles that focus on the end user result in products that deliver a more satisfying and intuitive experience while meeting the users’ needs and expectations—and potentially giving manufacturers a competitive advantage.

OEMs in the medical field certainly apply user-centric design practices, but not always towards materials selection. As a result, there may be an opportunity to differentiate themselves from others by taking a harder look at the polymers they use for the products they make.

Selecting specialty polymers for healthcare with physicians and hospitals in mind can help you position your materials as an additional value proposition, showing that you’ve thought about the end user from the material level and up. There are lots of reasons to allow end use to dictate material selection, starting with the fact that the people using medical devices and equipment in clinical settings are having a stronger influence on whether hospitals even purchase them.

Physicians are the New Purchasing Agents

According to the Front Line of Healthcare Survey (Bain, 2017), the decision-making authority for purchasing medical equipment has become more collaborative and equitable between physicians and procurement, reversing a 10-year trend that shifted the authority to procurement and finance officers. Today, physicians are feeling less pressure to cooperate, gaining more representation on purchasing committees and exercising more discretion than in years past. 
 

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Figure from Front Line of Healthcare Survey (Bain 2017)

 

An interesting takeaway from this study, besides the fact that physicians have more representation on purchasing committees, is that they are exercising more discretion over purchasing decisions. Forward-thinking OEMs who consider their end user’s wants and needs in all respects with regards to medical product design, including material selection, will have a competitive edge if and when physicians on buying committees are brought in. And what do physicians want? The Bain survey is helpful in this respect, too.

When asked about the criteria that is either “important” or “very important” when evaluating medical devices to purchase, most physicians responded: 89% Strongest product quality and reliability; 88% Better patient outcomes; 70% Best value for price paid.
 

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Figure from Front Line of Healthcare Survey (Bain 2017)

 

Although this survey was focused on medical device purchases, the results illustrate the need to consider who else is at the purchasing table and provide a glimpse into how OEMs can better make (and better market) medical products with end users in mind. From the physicians’ perspective, this means selecting high-grade materials that result in strong and durable products.

Consider some of the ways OEMs have approached material selection to physician’s needs and expectations:

Elasso Surgical Instruments, for example, used medical-grade Ixef® GS-1022 polyarylamide (PARA) in a new electrocautery instrument for adenoid and tonsil surgeries. As a viable alternative to metal, PARA resin allowed the Michigan-based medical device pioneer to optimize the ergonomics and precision of its instrument without compromising the rigidity of key components. 

SMACO Company chose higher-performance Radel® R-5100 NT polyphenylsulfone (PPSU) to mold a more ergonomic hand piece for an innovative new dental scaler designed to lower hand fatigue associated with metal hand pieces.

Okani Medical Technology developed an all-polymer knee implant based on Zeniva® polyetheretherketone (PEEK) that offers a longer service life at a lower cost than traditional metallic implant systems. Okani reports that the ORGKnee implant made with Zeniva® PEEK exhibits 50% less wear versus a metal implant as measured by material loss over three million cycles. 

But there are other, less obvious ways that material selection can benefit the end user. For example, the impact material selection can have on how patients feel in the care of their doctors.

Discoloration of tubing or equipment housings, for example, can decrease patient confidence and increase patient anxiety in clinical settings. So, another way for OEMs to make a stronger case for their products is demonstrating that the materials used were selected in part for their color stability. Coloration testing of polymers for medical equipment can help designers and engineers select materials that exhibit the best color stability when exposed to the cleaning and sterilization protocols their end users subject them to. Color selection can also help establish a “cognitive roadmap” that helps users in clinical settings determine which devices go where and in what order.

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Example of coloration test results

 

Hospitals Care About HAIs, and OEMs Should Too

According to the CDC, on any given day about one in 31 hospital patients has at least one healthcare-associated infection (HAI). In an effort to curb infection rates, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) implemented the HAC Reduction Program. Under this program, hospitals are evaluated and scored under two domains. Domain 1 scores hospitals according to reported rates of patient safety indicators such as accidental punctures, pressure ulcers and post-operative complications including acute kidney injury and respiratory failure; Domain 2 focuses on HAIs such as MRSA, CLABSI, CAUTI and SSI.

While only 15% of a hospital’s total HAC Reduction Program score is attributable to Domain 1, a full 85% of a facility’s score comes from Domain 2. Under the HAC Reduction Program, hospitals with a Total HAC Score greater than the 75th percentile of all Total HAC Scores (i.e., the worst-performing quartile) will be subject to a 1% payment reduction. In response, hospitals have adopted more aggressive disinfecting protocols to reduce and prevent the spread of healthcare-associated infections. Unfortunately, stronger chemical agents and more frequent cleaning and disinfection has presented another challenge for hospitals and OEMs alike: environmental-stress cracking.

Repeat exposure to certain chemicals and disinfectants can degrade polymers over time and eventually lead to plastic failure. Only a handful of polymers have the chemical resistance to stand up to these new procedures, and they are quickly replacing lower performing polymers no longer able to perform as needed. OEMs that select high-performance specialty polymers with chemical-resistance in mind can present a stronger value proposition to hospitals and GPOs.

Benjamin Harp, COO of Polymer Conversions Inc., a full-service medical injection molding contract manufacturer in the U.S., spoke to Medical Product Outsourcing about how the new “war on germs” is driving innovation in medical device materials. “Good material selection is absolutely essential in developing a new product,” Harp asserted. “Knowing the environment and how the environment will handle the device will help in the selection of a material that is suitable for a particular application.”

To accomplish this, OEMs need to focus on how different polymers hold up to common disinfectants used in hospitals and other healthcare settings. For example, if a particular device or housing is cleaned with an activated glutaraldehyde solution (e.g., CIDEX®) but the material is not well-suited for such a disinfectant, the polymer can begin to break down and the product can become inoperable due to cracks in the plastic.  

Ask your material supplier to provide chemical resistance performance data of its specialty healthcare polymers. For example, here is a sample of results of ESC testing for common hospital disinfectants on two specialty medical polymers: Udel® PSU and Radel® PPSU. 
 

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Example of disinfectant exposure test results

 


Stryker’s play to tackle hospital acquired infections

When Stryker announced the acquisition of Sage Products (a maker of hospital infection items for oral care, skin protection and patient hygiene, among other things) for $2.8 billion, the Fortune 500 medtech firm signaled to hospitals that it was focused on offering products that support a mindset of prevention and committed to helping them in their fight against HAIs. OEMs that adopt a similar mindset about material selection can wave the same flag.


 

Specialty Healthcare Polymers, Specialty Healthcare Experience

Better devices and equipment start with better materials. Solvay can help. In addition to offering the industry’s broadest selection of high-performance thermoplastics for medical devices and equipment, we also bring over 25 years of experience supplying materials to the healthcare industry. We leverage our experience to provide the guidance and support OEMs need from their partners, and we can help you determine the best specialty polymers for your end users.