Ein MRT-Gerät mit geöffneter Abdeckung.

Ein MRT-Gerät mit geöffneter Abdeckung.

| stock.adobe.com/andrey
2024-04-01 VDE dialog

Medical technology: A second life for CT

Medical equipment such as CT and MRI machines are in high demand even at the end of their first service life. There is a large market for refurbished medical technology both in Germany and around the world. Some areas are still not covered by international regulations, however.

By Julian Hörndlein

CT scanners, MRI machines and other high-tech equipment are indispensable for modern medicine. Such devices are a costly investment and need to perform reliably for many years. However, they cannot last forever. Like TVs or computers, medical devices are electronic products that at some point have to be replaced or disposed of. But while TVs or computers can be easily transported to an electrical waste collection point, disposing of medical equipment is considerably more time-consuming and expensive. And that’s just one of several reasons why it’s often worth having the equipment professionally refurbished. “Market researchers expect refurbished medical equipment to generate an annual turnover of around 34 billion US dollars by 2030,” according to a DKE information sheet on the recycling of medical equipment that focuses on regulation.

The sector includes not only CT and X-ray equipment but also ultrasound devices, surgical instruments, diagnostic equipment, patient monitoring systems and laboratory equipment. Manufacturers are required by law to take back these devices at the end of their (first) service life. However, this requirement does not cover equipment that can be contaminated during use – like endoscopes, for example, which are inserted in the human body. These must be destroyed after use through incineration at very high temperatures. However, this option does not make sense for large devices that can be reused. “There is a market for them,” says Dr. Sven Grieger, Business Development Manager at the Fraunhofer Research Institution for Materials Recycling and Resource Strategies (IWKS).

After refurbishment, medical devices are as good as new

And it’s not just good economic sense to give medical devices a second life. “Around eight percent of global CO2 emissions come from the health sector,” says Grieger, highlighting the environmental aspect. This figure can be reduced if fewer new devices are produced. The fact that second-hand medical technology is naturally cheaper than new equipment makes it an attractive prospect for emerging economies that are investing in their health systems but only have limited financial resources at their disposal. However: “The largest markets for refurbished medical equipment are the United States, Germany and Japan,” says Patricia Gehrlein, Circular Economy Program Manager at Siemens Healthineers. In 2001, the company began investing in the refurbishment of its own medical technology. Gehrlein has witnessed a growing awareness of the issue, particularly in recent years. American market researchers have similar expectations: they forecast an annual growth rate of twelve percent in the sector. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), refurbished devices are sold primarily in the United States (46 percent) and European countries (24 percent).

A technician working on a medical device.

Refurbishment of medical devices

| Siemens Healthineers

The right expertise is needed to refurbish medical equipment. In most cases, companies buy the devices they produced back from the users. The refurbishment process is then carried out back at the production site. First, the devices must be disinfected and cleaned, before they can be completely dismantled and thoroughly tested. Worn parts are replaced, and any software updates imported. Depending on the focus, manufacturers will make further adjustments. “During refurbishment, we can already take account of which configuration the next customer needs,” says Gehrlein.

Resale often proves more difficult than refurbishment

When a medical device leaves the production site again, it’s as good as new. Warranties are usually also equivalent to those for new devices. Despite this, selling the refurbished devices is not always easy, because the regulations around used medical technology are not consistent internationally. “The placing of refurbished medical devices on the market is governed by the legal provisions of the country in which they will be used,” states DKE. In the European Union, their use is controlled by the Medical Devices Regulation of 2017, and in Germany, the Medical Devices Implementation Act plays an important role. In practice, the refurbisher must submit a declaration of conformity to the national authorities, which then check whether legal requirements have been met. However, what applies in the EU is not clearly regulated on an international level. “We are not allowed to sell refurbished medical devices to every country in the world,” says Gehrlein, pointing to the strict rules for refurbished electrical equipment in countries such as China. For this reason, DKE believes it is necessary to establish standardized rules in the EU and worldwide. And to retain focus: “Given the dynamic development of the market, it would make sense to examine the current legal rulings in the EU and identify and close the gaps.”

Julian Hörndlein is a freelance technology journalist in Nuremberg.

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