Opportunities in Medical Packaging

The medical packaging market continues to expand at a slow but steady growth rate, despite a general economic slowdown throughout the world. North America remains the largest overall market at more than 1,100 million sq m of material and a value of nearly $400 million, with Europe following closely behind with more than 925 million sq m of material at a value of more than $320 million.

European companies were among the first to develop unique and sterilizable packaging for products ranging from latex gloves to artificial joints and heart valves. Many of these packaging concepts have been adopted throughout the world.

Medical packaging can be classified into two general sub-groups — reusable and single-use. Reusable items include surgical tools, gowns, and medical devices that can be used and then sterilized by several different means, normally on-site autoclaving or irradiation. Single-use products, as the name implies, are sterilized on-site by the medical device packer. While it is logical to assume supplies such as gloves, wound care products, and syringes would be considered single-use, the threat of infection has led the medical profession to classify even certain surgical instruments, drapes, and gowns as single-use.

Key requirements for sterilizable medical packaging include fiber-free surfaces, the ability to withstand sterilization (by ETO, steam, or gamma radiation), clean room manufacturing, and ultimately, Food and Drug Administration approval.

A Changing Market
The major types of sterilizable medical packaging are:

  • wrappings
  • bags
  • pouches and breather pouches
  • tubing
  • thermoformed trays and lids

Pouches, tubing, and thermoformed trays are experiencing the highest levels of growth as applications using bags and wrappings are replaced, and at the same time, the trend toward film or paper/film laminates and away from standard paper packaging also is gathering momentum.

Changes in medical and hospital practice, including the drive for cost reduction, shorter hospital stays, and less invasive surgical procedures have slowed the growth of the medical packaging market. The trend toward less invasive surgery unquestionably is reducing some requirements — notably for stoma care bags and surgical drapes.

Even though the market in North America and Europe still is growing overall, it also is growing in other regions, such as Asia, at a much faster rate. Because of this, many key medical packaging companies across the globe have added facilities in Asia or have begun exporting to these regions.

New Applications
Wound care is by far the fastest growing market segment, accounting for approximately 47 million sq m of material, and continuing to represent a platform for innovation as new clinical healing techniques are developed. The segment includes dressings, plasters, and special adhesive materials for the treatment of burns, cuts, operations, and other wounds. These can differ significantly between retail/over-the-counter (OTC) products and hospital or prescription products.

The retail/OTC market accounts for approximately 30% and is dominated by branded products primarily based on traditional healing methods. Virtually all employ some form of protective liner for the healing pad as well as for the self-adhesive layer. However, liners can vary from plain or embossed films to polyethylene-coated paper or silicone-coated paper or film. The retail market is relatively stable, and demand is governed largely by demographic growth.

In contrast, wound care products in hospital/prescription applications show much stronger growth due to being more technology driven and reflecting innovation in clinical healing techniques. Many new products have been developed in this field, often film-based, and often requiring silicone-coated release liners for both material processing and for the finished product.

The use of disposable medical devices such as electrode terminals and other diagnostics, as well as stoma care bags, also is growing. Surgical drapes, gowns, and tapes, whether single- or double-sided, demand the same treatment as more expensive medical devices.

Transdermal patches for drug delivery rely heavily on self-adhesive technology, employing hypoallergenic adhesives and high-performance release liners, and their popularity has extended into the realms of OTC personal care products such as facial pore strips and anti-wrinkle pads. Foot-care products, allergy patch tests, and other stick-to-skin products make up the rest of the market.

There is a large base of medical packagers in North America and Europe, each with its own specialty, and many of these companies work together. The largest medical packaging companies in the US and Europe are Rexam, VP Stericlin, WiPak, Amcor, Kenpak, Perfecseal, and Oliver Products.

As the medical industry and its requirements change, so do packaging methods. In the US and in Europe, single-use medical devices are replacing multi-use applications at the fastest rates, largely due to litigation pressures. Medical professionals, fearing liability suits, have been quick to change to single-use devices.

However, while the medical packaging market has seen slow to moderate growth in North America and Europe, it is seeing rapid growth in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, which are eagerly embracing the developments and advances in the traditional markets in the war against infection. It is estimated, with current growth trends, the Asia/Africa/Middle East market almost will equal that of North America and Europe combined by 2007.

The AWAreness Report on “The European Medical Packaging Market” will be published this spring by AWA Alexander Watson Assoc.; awa-bv.com.


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