This Is Plastics: Plastics Are Behind the Smart Technology Driving Healthcare’s Future


Plastics Are Behind the Smart Technology Driving Healthcare’s Future

Plastics are behind the technological and logistical innovations that are shaping healthcare’s future—advancing access, quality and sustainability.


Plastics have been essential in the development of modern medicine, from building medical devices, to packaging sterile instruments and more. As healthcare increasingly uses smart technology—like advanced computers and robots—to deliver services and execute procedures, plastics play a critical role in making the future of healthcare a present-day reality. 

Plastics bring healthcare into the home 

Throughout the pandemic, plastics have played a critical role in expanding access to healthcare by enabling virtual medical care, known as telehealth. As COVID-19 spread throughout the United States, providers and patients alike relied on electronics instead of exam rooms to evaluate, diagnose and treat medical conditions. At the pandemic’s onset, telehealth utilization shot to nearly 80 times that of the pre-COVID baseline and has since stabilized to 38 times greater as of February 2021. Telehealth was already rising for many elderly patients before the pandemic. In December 2021, a report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) found that Medicare telehealth utilization was 63 times greater in 2020 than 2019. 

Telehealth expansion couldn’t have occurred without plastics, which have many essential applications in smartphones, tablets and computers. Electronics manufacturing processes rely on pure plastic polymer compounds—a high-performance, specialized class of plastics—due to their unique chemical- and temperature-resistant properties that ensure product quality. Personal computers can be 30 to 40 percent plastic, utilizing plastics for both functional and design applications. Beyond the electronics themselves, useful devices like webcams rely on thermoplastic polymers for secure mounting, allowing high-definition check-ups between patients and their providers.

As sustainability goals are top of mind for consumers and governments around the globe, innovative companies are transforming recycled plastics into the computers of the future. In 2016, HP launched programs targeting ocean-bound plastics, diverting unnecessary plastic waste from the ocean and producing recycled material for over 50 of its products—including laptops, monitors, cases and more. As of August 2021, the program had kept over 1.8 million pounds of plastic, or 65 million bottles, out of the ocean. Other companies are following suit; in May 2021, Taiwanese electronics company Acer rolled out the first laptop to center its design around post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastic. Plastics enable not only the critical electronics we rely on today but also the sustainable devices of tomorrow.

Plastics make innovative surgical procedures possible 

Plastics’ ability to enable cutting-edge healthcare delivery doesn’t stop with in-home services. In 2000, the da Vinci Surgical Systembecame the first robotic surgery system approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for laparoscopic surgery, a major milestone in modern medicine. The da Vinci has become a fixture in the medical world, as it offers surgeons greater mechanical dexterity than is humanly possible and provides patients shorter recovery times and less blood loss during surgery. As of 2009, nearly 90 percent of all prostate cancer surgeries were robot-assisted, and in 2019, the da Vinci helped University of Pennsylvania surgeons develop a “‘game-changing’ approach” for reconstruction following mastectomies. 

From its ergonomically designed surgeon console, to its surgery-performing patient cart, to protective covers for the system’s robotic arms that prevent contamination and infection, the da Vinci utilizes plastics in each aspect of its revolutionary design. Several specialty polymers—including polyphenylsulfone (PPSF or PPSU) and polyetheretherketone (PEEK)—are biocompatible and flexible, also able to withstand high heat and resist damage from repeated cleaning and sterilization, making them well-suited for surgical robots. Needless to say, without plastics, the surgical community likely would’ve never reached this landmark achievement. 

Plastics have helped make in-home healthcare a reality—providing a critical healthcare solution amidst COVID-19 in the process—and offer lasting opportunities to improve procedure quality and service delivery as we chart healthcare’s path into the future. Plastics are key to modern medicine as we know it—and technological advancements that would’ve been inconceivable mere decades ago are now just the beginning of what’s possible. 

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