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Flexible materials: Applications in Healthcare Today

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In Brief

Flexible materials combined with emerging technologies are at the forefront of healthcare innovations. Guiding recent advances are cost concerns, mass-production, and improved patient outcomes.

One major challenge facing the advanced flexible materials industry is translating research and development discoveries into an end product that is designed for commercial scale up. Just because a product or prototype is created on a bench top does not mean it is easily manufactured or cost-effective on a commercial scale.

In some cases, these concerns have been successfully addressed, resulting in the production and current applications of some exciting new flexible medical materials and devices.

Tapes and Composites

Manufacturers have worked hard in recent years to develop cost-efficient, high-performing tapes and composites. Previously, silicone adhesives were the preferred choice in the industry. As the costs to produce silicone products increased, their demand diminished.

Replacing them with medical grade adhesives is driving this growth sector. New, low-trauma adhesives with the same functionality as silicone adhesives are appearing at a more feasible price point, along with practical applications.

Tapes and Applications

  1. Low-trauma, pressure-sensitive tape: consists of an adhesive coated substrate comprising a sheet material, tape or laminate structure designed to adhere to skin or like surfaces. Examples include: wound or surgical dressings, athletic tapes, surgical drapes, or tapes (or tabs) used to adhere medical devices (sensors, electrodes, ostomy appliances, etc.).
  2. Wound dressing tapes: intended for application to wounds that exude bodily fluids, to prevent the introduction of pathogens into the wound while allowing maximum evaporation of exudate. Acrylic-based adhesives are used to create hypoallergenic materials.
  3. Films: Sometimes referred to as a "second skin," these very thin sheets of polyurethane are coated with an adhesive. They are ideal for treating wounds with little exudate, and especially practical for awkward sites such as the knee and elbow.

Composites

Composites are created by taking the best characteristics of two different materials and combining them to make a useful new product. Dressings for advanced wound care may consist of:

  1. Foam
  2. Films
  3. Hydrogels
  4. Hydrocolloids
  5. Electrospun nanofibers

Smart Bandages

Kids may think cartoon characters on their bandages are cool, but inventors are working on a color-changing bandage that will alert the wearer to potential infections of the wound site. Toby Jenkins, professor of biophysical chemistry, is leading a team at the University of Bath in the hopes of preventing the patient from getting sick from infection -- or even in some cases help avoid the need for antibiotics.

This prototype contains a gel-like material infused with tiny capsules that release a non-toxic fluorescent dye when directly exposed to bacteria that commonly cause wound infections. They envision one of the first applications could be for burn treatment. 

Wearable Technology

According to a report by Transparency Market Research, the global wearable medical devices market is projected to rise by 18% from 2015-2023. So, by the end of 2023 global market revenues will increase from US$2.7 billion to nearly US$10 billion.

Many factors are fueling the demand, including:

  • increased consumption of telehealth
  • a rise in chronic diseases
  • improved access in developing nations
  • aging populations

Whether a device is worn -- and easily removed -- or implanted into the body, the purpose of wearable tech is to create convenient, constant, portable, seamless, and mostly hands-free access to computers and electronics.

Implications for healthcare include:

  1. Smart contact lenses
  2. Bio-feedback
  3. Sensors and monitors
  4. Hearing aids
  5. Visual aids
  6. Pain management
  7. Glucose/insulin management

Monitoring Heart Health and Disease

Wearable vital sign monitors lead the field due to practicality. These devices are segmented to include:

  • wearable heart rate monitors
  • wearable electrocardiographs
  • wearable sleep monitors

The fitness trackers and smartwatches on the market today have come a long way from merely recording heart rate. Now they can measure and record in real time the patient's heart rate, SPO2, temperature, blood pressure, and other diagnostic parameters.

Fertility Testing Devices

Another sector experiencing a significant global growth rate is fertility testing. Some contributing factors are an increase in technological advances, high prevalence of obesity, and a rise in worldwide infertility. Several types of testing devices are available for both males and females, including:

  • ovulation prediction kits
  • male fertility testing kits
  • basal body temperature monitors
  • fertility monitors
  • cervical mucus monitors

 Summary

With clear goals of improved patient outcomes, meeting global demand and cost-effectiveness, researchers persist at developing practical solutions to meet the challenges facing healthcare today -- and to forge ahead into the future of smart medical materials and devices. 

 

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