Debate: will Covid-19 bring a return to single-use medical devices?

02 November 2020


In a pre-Covid-19 world, medical device manufacturers had begun to explore the potential of multi-use medical devices in a bid to boost sustainability efforts and reduce unnecessary waste in the sector. But, as the medical industry grapples to find ways to prevent the spread of contaminants, will single-use products regain favour? Chris Lo and Chloe Kent debate the issue of single use products amid global efforts to reduce virus transmission.

Chloe Kent: No, Covid-19 will not turn us back toward single-use devices

If healthcare were a country, it would be the fifth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases on the planet, with a carbon footprint equivalent to 514 coal-fired power plants. As such, it’s unsurprising that device makers have started to centre sustainability in product design, focusing on making reusable versions of devices like surgical forceps, instead of plastic ones that need to be disposed of straight away. The downside of reusables is that they become soiled after use and need to be reprocessed afterwards.

Now, the Covid-19 pandemic has caused people to become more apprehensive about touching surfaces and objects due to fears of surface-related disease transmission. This begs the question – will patients and practitioners turn away from reusable devices due to these same fears?

Such concerns are not necessarily grounded in reality. While some researchers have found that the SARS-CoV-2 virus can survive on surfaces for weeks in certain circumstances, The Lancet reports that many of these studies bear little resemblance to real-life scenarios. The studies have used concentrations of SARS-CoV-2 “a lot higher than those in droplets in real-life situations, with the amount of virus actually deposited on surfaces likely to be several orders of magnitude smaller”.

In reality, surface transmission is only likely if the surface has been directly coughed or sneezed on, and then touched within an hour or two. Erring on the side of caution during a pandemic is obviously a good thing, but the main cause of disease transmission is still in particles exhaled by an infected individual. If a reusable medical device has been thoroughly disinfected, it’s not going to be a viable way for the virus to spread.

It’s also worth noting that people are looking for eco-friendly ways to be Covid-19-compliant in daily life. The use of personal protective equipment (PPE) has skyrocketed and the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that production will have to increase by 40% to meet the demand.

Surgical masks have become de rigueur among the general public whereas they were once more commonly seen inside the operating theatre. But many people are opting for reusable cloth masks they can clean and reuse instead of single-use options, indicating that the passion for sustainability among consumers is still there.

As such, it seems more than likely that the medical device industry will continue to edge down the reusable path, pandemic or no pandemic. As long as a device is cleaned thoroughly, it isn’t going to contribute to the spread of Covid-19.


Chris Lo: Covid-19 highlights the grey areas between single-use and reusable devices

With millions of tonnes of waste plastic filling up landfills and spilling into oceans every year, it would take a fool to argue that single-use medical devices are the only path forward in healthcare. With 2020 still in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic, experts are expecting a sizeable setback in the global campaign to reduce plastic waste pollution, exacerbated by the huge volumes of single-use PPE that are being produced for use in the healthcare sector and beyond.

Published by on October 27, 2020

Image by Shutterstock


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