The healthcare supply industry must increase production by at least 40% to meet growing demand for personal protective equipment (PPE), a new review has found.
According to estimates by the World Health Organization (WHO), the global healthcare sector will need 89 million masks, 76 million gloves and 1.6 million goggles per month to deliver an appropriately robust response to the COVID-19 pandemic – in order to meet these figures, the healthcare supply industry must increase its production of PPE by at least 40%. Hospitals and healthcare facilities around the world are experiencing recurring PPE shortages; and the global supply chain has been challenged due to a potent combination of rising demand, panic buying, hoarding and misuse.
A comprehensive review paper aimed at improving the global provision of PPE, titled ‘Sustainable Personal Protective Clothing for Healthcare Applications’ and published in ACS Nano, sets out four key recommendations to avoid PPE shortages in the future and improve the quality of existing PPE:
- Create government-backed local or regional manufacturing, sourcing and distribution facilities to avoid future disruption with supply and ensure that required quality and standards for medical applications are achieved;
- Introduce digital technologies, including robotics and artificial intelligence, to minimise labour costs and enable cost-effective manufacturing at scale. This will be particularly important in areas such as Europe and North America where labour costs are high;
- Introduce legislation to increase the use of sustainable and reusable protective equipment and invest more into developing environmentally sustainable recycling processes for single-use plastic-based PPE; and
- Invest in research into innovative technologies, such as smart wearable electronic textiles, that can produce more durable PPE and have the ability to monitor the wearer’s physiological conditions.
HEQ speaks with Dr Nazmul Karim, Associate Professor for Novel Print Processes and Materials at the Centre for Fine Print Research (CFPR) at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol), about the need for sustainable intervention to meet new demand in the PPE supply chain.
How significant is the role of PPE in preventing the spread of infection in hospitals and clinical settings?
PPE is considered to be one of the most important and critical components in the hierarchy of controls used to protect healthcare workers and patients in hospitals and clinical settings. It can protect wearers from droplets from coughs, sneezes, and aerosol-generating procedures, in addition to other contaminated body fluids and surfaces from infected patients.
Could a more standardised international approach to PPE design and production help alleviate localised shortages, by facilitating cross-border sharing of resources?
Yes, absolutely a more standardised international approach is much needed at the moment. In our review paper we recommend the creation of government-backed local or regional (EU, America, South Asia, Middle East, etc) manufacturing, sourcing, and distribution facilities for PPE. We believe this will then enable cross-border sharing of resources and ease localised shortages.
While demand for PPE has risen drastically in 2020, concerns have grown over the environmental impact of production and disposal of single-use equipment, particularly masks. Should more attention be paid to the potential of sustainable PPE production?
Yes, it is extremely concerning that the use of single-use PPE has risen significantly due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Often these items are made of nonbiodegradable plastics which can stay in the environment for hundreds of years. Increased rates of PPE demand and consumption as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent incineration of these products will, in turn, contribute to increased carbon emissions, which is also a problem. Therefore, the textile industry now has an opportunity to design new types of environmentally sustainable protective clothing that would be washable and reusable, which could potentially reduce the amount of medical waste contributing toward environmental pollution, and support a shift towards more sustainable protective medical clothing and a circular economy.
The majority of Europe’s nurses and healthcare workers are women, but most PPE is sized primarily for men. What are the key risks this poses to female medical professionals?
The size and fits of PPE units are absolutely crucial to keep our healthcare workers safe. It is important that we address this during PPE manufacturing and make a wide variety of sizes and fits available for our women healthcare workers. I believe it shouldn’t be a big issue to resolve size and fit problems. However, we need to make sure that we address this to protect our frontline workers from infections.
What further action should be taken at the procurement and policy levels to ensure that healthcare facilities have sufficient PPE supplies to cope with a ‘second wave’ of COVID-19?
I think we need more combined regional approach to create government-backed sourcing, quality control and distribution centres to ensure safe and sufficient PPE supplies are available to meet the demand created by future events.
Dr Nazmul Karim
Associate Professor for Novel Print Processes and Materials
Centre for Fine Print Research
University of the West of England