Making An Incision In The Medical Market

August 17, 2005

nonwovens are a preferred material for use in hospitals

When it comes to the medical market, nonwovens are exactly what the doctor ordered. Both manufacturers and consumers are already aware of the many benefits nonwovens offer to the medical market. When compared to textiles, nonwovens are lower in cost, easier to use, more versatile, safer and feature better disposability. With this in mind, it is no wonder that nonwovens are found in hospital surgical drapes and gowns, protective face masks, gloves, surgical packs and bedding and linens.

Still, while nonwovens find a great number of end uses in the medical market, their proliferation is not yet complete, according to some industry sources. For nonwovens to further establish themselves in the medical market, several things need to happen. For one, issues concerning the impact disposing nonwovens has on the environment needs to be addressed. While in some cases, the disposability of nonwovens grows, masks and scrubs makes them more attractive in the hospital environment, it is also holding them back due to concerns over disposing of disposables. A lack of communication between manufacturers and consumers is also hindering the growth of nonwovens in the medical market. Although healthcare officials are aware of the benefits that disposable products offer in hospitals and healthcare facilities, doctors, healthcare officials and patients still remain hesitant to use disposables because of environmental factors.

Other challenges facing nonwovens include keeping up with regulations imposed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Washington, D.C., and other regulatory bodies, for increased product safety. Such regulations have made hygiene safety a priority among hospitals and manufacturers because they recognize that hospitals are often a breeding ground for infectious diseases and germs.

In addition to increased environmental awareness and education, and regulations being enforced throughout hospitals, changing standards of living will also determine the fate of the medical market in the future. Due to the current global economic climate and corporate budget cuts, worldwide standards of living are constantly evolving. Where at one time healthcare facilities in countries such as Italy and China had funding needed for woven materials in hospitals, they may now have to rely on less costly options such as nonwovens.
It is clear that the role of nonwovens in the medical market is changing. Research and development efforts are currently underway to produce nonwovens with increased barrier fluid resistance, while making them softer and more comfortable. In addition, wipes and other over-the-counter (OTC) nonwovens are making headway in the medical market, along with some new products that will soon begin to further shape this diverse market.

Barricading Fluids
The most common demands placed on nonwovens manufacturers selling to the medical market include producing a nonwoven that is both soft and breathable while also offering a high level of barrier protection. Traditionally, the cloth-like quality of spunlaced materials has met these needs, but recently manufacturers have also been targeting spunbond-melt blown-spunbond (SMS) fabrics and other composites for the medical market.

“Spunlaced fabrics, while more cloth-like, are seeing their share erode as users demand higher levels of protection,” explained Bob Britton, president of the North American Hygiene/Medical Division of BBA Nonwovens’ Materials Technology Group, Simpsonville, SC. “SMS fabrics offer the highest level of protection, and their softness and comfort have improved considerably. They are rapidly becoming the dominant fabrics at the medical market.”

Pieter Meijer, vice president of sales and marketing at BBA Nonwovens Europe, noted both spunlace and SMS are the leading fabrics used in protective medical apparel and will most likely continue to be in the lead.

“Further improving the comfort of the wearer while maintaining barrier properties are key to furthering the success of nonwovens in medical applications,” Mr. Meijer said.

“Spunlaced fabrics are known for their softness and versatility that can match various end uses,” said Michael Lunde, vice president of business development at Jacob Holm Industries Group, Denmark. “Spunlaced fabrics can also be made to have breathability and comfort for all skin contact uses and can also be produced without a lack of chemical binders for open wound uses such as wound dressings.”

Atex, Settala, Italy, is witnessing a rising demand for the barrier protection properties SMS fabrics can provide to the medical market. In response to this, Atex has recently developed disposable SMS barrier fabrics with a high level of melt blown content for use in the medical market. Executives at PGI Nonwovens, N. Charleston, SC, agree that the popularity of SMS fabrics continues to grow in the medical market but they still recognize spunlaced fabrics’ importance in the medical market. “Either of these products can deliver the performance required for a majority of surgical procedures performed in today’s medical market,” said Nyle Bishop, vice president of PGI’s medical division. “One of the biggest factors in the growth of one technology over the other has been the availability of medical grade products. PGI has addressed this issue by adding additional capacity of spunlace and SMS targeted specifically at the medical market.”

This additional capacity includes PGI’s recently launched Provia medical spunlace products and Polymed medical SMS materials and composite products, which are already reportedly being used by medical manufacturers.

“Both spunlaced and spunlaid composites are major technologies found in the high volume markets such as surgical gowns and drapes,” said Mr. Meijer. “The balance between strength, barrier properties, comfort and costs will determine which technology will prevail in the long term though.”

Producing nonwoven fabrics with improved barrier protection has become a priority for manufacturers, especially with the increased awareness of diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis and also the re-occurring outbreaks of Legionnaire’s disease and Tuberculosis. Now more than ever, manufacturers are seeing demands for barrier protection. “Tuberculosis is an especially worrisome disease since it can only be treated with antibiotics that are becoming ineffective because they are seldom used by patients for the entire duration of the prescription period,” explained Jacob Holm’s Mr. Lunde. “Diseases are also developing strains that are resistant to medication.”

Thus, producers have no choice but to continue their research and development efforts to keep up with consumer demands.

“The rise of these diseases emphasizes the need for higher fluid protection in medical devices,” said BBA’s Mr. Britton. “As a result, design requirements for nonwoven fabrics became more acute and more specialty devices were developed. SMS fabrics are replacing spunlaced fabrics and face masks have become fluid-resistant. Diseases continue to play a part in nonwovens growth, particularly in second and third world regions where single-use devices provide the best solution to microbial challenges.”

Adel Al-Mahjad, acting general manager at Saudi Arabian Advanced Fabrics (SAAF), Al-Ahsa, Saudi Arabia, agreed that the rise of diseases still remains a serious and growing threat, especially on a global basis. “Single-use nonwovens eliminate the potential for problems associated with the disposal of potentially infected liquids or wastewater,” he said.

Manufacturers are already aware of the benefits of nonwovens for hospital use but the worldwide medical market may be in for a turbulent ride in the future. Varying worldwide economic conditions, coupled with budget cuts in healthcare also result in a varying medical market throughout each of these countries.

A Global Prognosis
The U.S. is the worldwide leader when it comes to medical nonwovens use, but Europe is quickly gaining ground. Jacob Holm is one European company that is moving into new areas within the medical market and is hoping to eventually see the same penetration rate as in the U.S. “Overall the medical market is holding up well,” opined Mr. Lunde. “If you provide a solid and desirable nonwoven, customers view your product as a must-have.”

The medical market is a core market for Jacob Holm. The company produces its nonwovens for the medical market using its high-performance Norafin substrates. “They perform well with added treatments, resulting in a perfect material for medical gowns because they combine hydrophobicity with softness and a textile feel,” Mr. Lunde said.

Another one of Jacob Holm’s products targeting medical applications is Duplex, a composite material primarily used in gowns and bed covers. “We are seeing a lot of potential in the European hospital market, which has been somewhat of a laggard in adopting disposable nonwovens. This situation is beginning to turn around,” Mr. Lunde explained.

In addition to Western Europe, BBA’s Mr. Britton is witnessing nonwovens growth throughout Australia and Japan; however, in Eastern Europe, Asia, the Middle East and South America, nonwovens are not as widely used. “A high growth rate is forecast in these areas as the quality and quantity of sophisticated healthcare in these regions increases,” he predicted.

China’s economy has experienced a recent economic shift as well. The standard of living in China is not as high as those in Western countries. “We have tried to promote our surgical gowns and caps, antibacterial spunlaced nonwovens and wipes made with microfibers to the medical market throughout China and the result has not been too good,” admitted Ze Zhang, an export/import executive at Hangzhou Advanced Nonwoven Co., Hangzhou, China. “I think our consumption of disposable surgical gowns will eventually increase in China due to the shortage of water resources in most regions. When the cost of washing a reusable cotton surgical gown is high, people will make the switch to disposable gowns.”

Atex’s Ms. Schiller agreed that, like China, some hospitals in Italy are still offering laundering services for textiles, but they are not expecting a trend to return back to long-life textiles once these hospitals make the switch to disposables.

In an effort to promote the growth of nonwovens in countries such as Italy and China, PGI has implemented several strategies. “PGI has implemented an asset strategy that supports regional manufacturing on a worldwide scope,” Mr. Bishop explained. “We are supporting medical manufacturers where they are located and where the medical market is growing.”

Now that the word has been spread about the benefits of nonwovens in hospitals, manufacturers are waiting for hospitals to eventually make the change completely. Bruno Guyomard, research and development manager at Jacob Holm, further noted that textiles are associated with being tedious, in terms of care and maintenance. “When looking at the combined cycle, using nonwovens in hospitals is the right thing. With textiles, they must be cleaned with detergent, wrapped in separate plastic covers or bags and then labeled. Nonwovens are ultimately less expensive. All that is required is for the patient or hospital employee to open it, use it and throw it away,” Mr. Guyomard explained.

What’s Up Doc?
With nonwovens being so versatile in their nature, manufacturers’ options for new product ideas are limitless. Nonwovens will continue to be produced with more fluid barrier protection while manufacturers find ways to make them softer and more comfortable for patients and medical staff. However, new markets and products have already begun to crack the surface.

“The medical market needs more high-tech composites rather than just basic nonwovens,” opined Max Castellani, managing director at Atex. “High-tech composites offer more possibilities that correspond to the requirements of the medical market. For example, with our new drop cloth, one side is hydrophobic to protect the patient and medical staff while the other side is hydrophilic to absorb liquids.”

PGI is one company boosting the popularity of composites. The company is currently promoting its composite materials for use in hospitals, and PGI’s Polymed medical SMS and composite products are available to medical manufacturers around the world.

Growth Of Composites
SAAF is also witnessing the growth of composite material along with seeing a major move toward combining nonwovens, films and other products into medical garments, which are designed for specific types of protection. “Some of these products exhibit zoned areas for extreme barrier protection while still providing a reasonable level of comfort to the wearer,” explained Mr. Al-Mahjad. “Where the need for protection, comfort and cost effectiveness are present, nonwoven products will be found.”

It is no wonder nonwovens are springing up everywhere in the medical market. In terms of new interests, Atex has been exploring what Mr. Castellani refers to as the para-medical market. “The idea behind it consists of various composites that can be converted into mono-use products in the fitness or exercise area,” he explained. “This market can range from clothing to equipment.” Although this is a new end use for nonwovens, executives are watching out for it in the future.

Jacob Holm has found use for one of its products in dental sponge applications. “This is not huge for us, but it is an area we will be keeping an eye on and continue to explore,” Mr. Lunde stated.

Carolyn Green, vice president of Marketing and Sales at Precision Fabrics Group (PFG), Greensboro, NC, has noticed nonwovens are gaining acceptance in wound care and pre- and post-operative areas, due to their ability to perform in demanding settings. “Additionally, continuous filament-based products will continue to gain share for use in the medical market,” she said.

DuPont’s Tyvek brand protective material has traditionally been used, for more than fifty years, to package sterile medical devices, particularly for differentiated products and high-value devices. “Recent advancements such as drug-coated stents for heart patients and catheters that allow targeted radiation delivery to tumors have underscored the importance of protective medical packaging and the role that Tyvek plays in this,” said Miray Pereira, global business manager at DuPont Medical Packaging, Wilmington, DE.

Additional markets that show promise for nonwovens include OTC nonwoven applications and products for the elderly. However, manufacturers have mixed opinions about the use of nonwovens in OTC applications. Some forecast a low growth rate, while others are seeing heavy involvement in bandages, wraps and wound care. “Nonwovens are extensively used in personal health care items such as bandages, wipes and wrappings,” BBA’s Mr. Britton said. “As manufacturers continue to develop specialty personal care products, the use of nonwovens can be expected to grow as well. A recent application for nonwovens in this field is the development of patches for delivering medication.”

More In OTC?
The OTC market is strong in the U.S. while other world regions, such as parts of Europe and the Middle East, aren’t reporting much acceptance in this area. “In Europe, there is a slow acceptance of nonwovens into the OTC market,” Jacob Holm’s Mr. Guyomard said. “I think this is due in part to a lack of effort of manufacturers and markets not being able to incorporate OTC products.”

Mr. Al-Mahjad of SAAF agreed that the OTC market still has a way to go before it becomes a significant market for nonwovens. “The OTC market is not developed yet, and we do not expect any real significant change in the near future,” he said.

Meanwhile, manufacturers have hopes that the increasing aging population will have a big impact on the role of nonwovens in the medical market. “The aging population is going to drive nonwovens much like the baby boom drove the diaper market,” predicted Ms. Green.

With all the trends and predictions for the future of this diverse market, manufacturers admit that disposables continue to be the best role for nonwovens to play in this market. However, a lack of communication between manufacturers and consumers about how safe they are for the environment is, without a doubt, a major inhibitor to further growth.

“I believe that this industry could do a better job of promoting the use of nonwovens by providing consumers with better information,” said PGI’s Mr. Bishop. “The information would need to be specific from region to region with a full understanding of the disposal process specific to that region of the world.”

With traditional textiles being replaced with nonwovens and more regulations enforced throughout hospitals, reiterating the safety factor of disposable nonwovens has never sounded more appealing than it does right now. “We need to communicate directly to manufacturers that nonwoven products are not bad for the environment after disposal,” Mr. Lunde said. “Nonwovens provide a good role for us, and they offer no contamination. More communication about this is what really needs to be done.”

Getting the message heard with disposables may take some time though. Keith Lauritsen, vice president of marketing at Green Bay Nonwovens, Green Bay, WI, noted that doctors are slow to make changes and implementing new products is a slow process, so it will take a good deal of time before all hospitals fully switch to disposables. Manufacturers still remain hopeful that people will become more educated about disposables ending up in landfills and incinerators and that this will then change their mindsets and result in higher nonwovens use. However, education is not the only factor that will shape the future of the medical market. The changing economy will also play a role.

“Although the medical market is not recession-proof, it is less impacted by the economy than the other markets,” Ms. Green pointed out. “This is because people will still need surgery and other medical procedures. Elective surgeries are fewer when the economy is soft.”

Manufacturers, consumers and hospital personnel will have to wait and see if communication increases and how new products and markets pan out for them.

“Nonwovens will continue to provide manufacturers of medical devices with a variety of cost-effective fabric solutions that they require,” BBA’s Mr. Britton said. “To the hospital user, there is no substitute for the reliability and efficacy of single-use medical devices.”

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