The healthcare industry has an established way to deal with hard-to-sterilize medical instruments: disposable plastics
Although single-use disposable plastics are under fire (consider the “war on drinking straws“), it’s important to keep in mind that modern disposable plastics literally save millions of lives annually:
I keep seeing people advocating for the ban of all single-use plastics. I have a genuine question:
how are we supposed to keep medical equipment & procedures sterile & safe? What is the proposed alternative to medical plastic waste? I have never seen this addressed ONCE.
— Lev Mirov (semi-hiatus) (@thelionmachine) April 29, 2019
The Case for Disposable Plastics and Single-Use Medical Devices
Back in 2015 the FDA warned healthcare providers that bronchoscopes (used to examine the lungs) can remain contaminated—even after proper cleaning. Dirty scopes had been linked to more than 100 serious pathogen transmissions. Three years after that warning, independent researchers inspected dozens of bronchoscopes that had been cleaned and disinfected at hospitals. All of these scopes retained “residual contamination” after the cleaning process, including potentially deadly pathogens.
As a response, medical device manufacturers began offering single-use disposable bronchoscopes. These carry zero risk of cross-contamination, and are gaining traction at medical centers nationwide—largely because, in many situations, there may not be an enormous cost difference between single-use and reusable scopes. But none of that accounts for the large amount of biohazardous waste such a practice creates.
The Case for Better Autoclave Procedures
But the disposable plastics and single-use medical devices are not the only way to address the challenges inherent in steam-sterilizing complex medical instruments.
Several years ago we were contacted by a company working on a new robotics-assisted suite of tools to improve partial and total knee replacement surgery. This system relied on complex and delicate reusable components, which included electrical sensors. These reusable surgical instruments needed to be reliably sterilized after each procedure.
The medical device manufacturer had a variety of concerns about how this device would hold up to repeated uses and steam-heat sterilization cycles—but had found that even a single testing cycle took months. This slow progress was hobbling their ability to develop a reusable medical device.
When we outfitted them with a proper, programable research-grade autoclave, they were able to increase prototype testing throughput by 500% practically overnight. Being able to do months of testing in just days massively shifted their progress in developing a safe, reusable medical device.