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The History of the Urinary Catheter

Since the late 20th century, the word “catheter” has taken the world by storm. It revolutionized the way people suffering from a plethora of conditions have lived their lives and established itself as a multi-billion dollar industry. Because of this industry’s recent ascension to the international market, many think of the catheter as a new concept. However, the catheter has not existed for decades, or centuries, but for millennia. Even though the catheter has only recently become a worldwide phenomenon, this fascinating medical device has a rich history as old as the wheel. 

The Origins of the Catheter

The concept of the catheter has existed since roughly 3,000 B.C., and its phrasing was established by the ancient Greeks centuries later. The word “catheter” means “to let or send down”. It was a solution fabricated by early civilizations, whose populations tended to have higher rates of urinary difficulty and discomfort. In order to achieve the shape and function of the catheter, the ancient people would attempt to create a tube in any material they could find: gold, silver, brass, straw, copper. They twisted and turned the tube until eventually, it worked. The basic structure for the catheter was born. Of course, as more established societies, such as the Roman Empire, rose throughout the Old World, the catheter began to evolve. Its structure became less flimsy, somewhat easier to use, and easier to make. 

Ancient Roman Catheter discovered in the ruins of Pompeii
Ancient Roman Catheter discovered in the ruins of Pompeii

Catheter Evolution During the American Revolution 

In the late 18th century, famed American inventor and scientist, Benjamin Franklin, saw an opportunity for the taking. His brother, John, passed kidney stones practically every day, and Benjamin had to witness the unbearable pain John went through. In order to release the kidney stones, John had to insert a dirty, bulky, and expensive metal catheter into his bladder. To make insertion less painful and more sanitary, Benjamin worked with the local silversmith to fashion a slim and flexible catheter. This new model was made out of silver, with a hole drilled on each side of the catheter to make urine release much easier with less mess. Along with these much-needed changes, he also fashioned the catheter to be much smaller in width. This way, John would not have to worry as much about damaging urethral lining or contracting urinary tract infections (UTIs).

Getting Groovy with the Modern Catheter

In 1971, Dr. Jack Lapides at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, introduced the clean intermittent catheterization technique. He believed the future success of his catheter method would come from his theory, in which bacteria were not the only source for infection. Lapides believed that stagnant urine in the bladder could cause very painful bladder infections and UTIs. In addition, he also believed overextension of the bladder with incorrect catheters could also lead to such infections. Despite being widely criticized by many urologists, he persisted with his idea. Eventually, his technique became the leading method to treat prevalent and chronic diseases, such as urine retention or neurogenic bladder. Along with his new method and the relatively new creation Frederic Foley’s 1929 “Foley catheter”, a perfect storm for disrupting the new biomedical market was born. Until recently, the Foley catheter and Lapides’ technique dominated the catheter industry. 

A Dirty Patch in the Catheter 

Despite a recent jumpstart in the evolution of the catheter’s structure, functionality, cleanliness, it has suffered unfortunate drawbacks when it came to patient accessibility.  Up until the late 2000s, insurance companies would only reimburse 4 catheters a month. This was as annoying — and gross — as it sounds. Millions of people around the United States alone had to wash their catheters dozens of times, in order to keep insurance costs low. As one would expect, UTIs and other grueling diseases present from excessive and unsanitary catheter usage soared across the United States. However, due to the introduction of more cost-effective materials, insurance companies, particularly Medicare, were able to increase reimbursement from 4 catheters a month to 200 catheters a month. This 50-fold increase in the reimbursed catheters provided less infection, discomfort, and worry. 

The Catheter goes Big but Gets a Little Smaller

In the early to mid-2010s, another “golden age” for catheter users emerged. As the medical industry’s technological capabilities increased, so did its ability to research. Higher quality and more effective 3D modeling platforms paved the way for cheaper and better-designed products. New solutions and lubrication techniques, such as hydrophilic coating, made insertion more comfortable and less painful. Catheter users thought it couldn’t get better than that. 

Fortunately, they stood incorrect. 

In 2011, CompactCath was born at Stanford University. Discreet, cost-effective, sterile, heavily lubricated, and easy to use. Everything a catheter user could have ever wanted to make a possibly intimidating and painful product easier to manage. This game-changing new product has steered the catheter on a new course and has also taken into consideration the hassle of transportation, public awareness, and functionality. So many big changes for such a small catheter. This is CompactCath. Unlike its predecessor, this catheter model provides the user with higher levels of comfort, cleanliness, and confidence. The CompactCath also takes little time to insert, is significantly smaller, and has a lower risk of UTI contraction. It truly is “the new generation of catheters”.

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