The medical devices industry in the United States has long created top-notch lifesaving equipment built to work across the board in every possible scenario. The American market demands über devices with all the latest bells and whistles (whether necessary or not). But this ultra-expensive bigger-is-better model is turning off a global market. Emerging economies such as India and Africa just can’t afford to buy super-fancy medical devices designed for the American market.
The India Biodesign initiative at Stanford University is a powerful example of how a lower-cost product, stripped down to it’s bare nuts and bolts function, and designed to fit the needs of a specific demographic, can be much more effective in less affluent countries.
As part of the Stanford program, fellows from India spend time at Stanford studying the biodesign process. They then return to India to see how this process can be applied to real-world medicine in their country. Thanks to this initiative a new bone drill has been developed for the India market, similar to the US version in some respects, but very different in other ways, the bone drill can be manufactured cheaply with few parts and it’s easy to assemble and use. The bone drill works manually rather than using costly batteries.
It makes sense for the medical devices industry to embrace emerging economies as both consumers and a potential source of labor and innovation. According to an article published by the The Economist back in January, companies such as Medtronic—a major manufacturer of medical devices—are investing heavily in China and India, “setting up research centers, hiring local talent and developing frugal inventions of their own.”
Medtronic recently partnered with a Chinese company and has already launched six innovative and inexpensive products inspired by its Chinese counterpart, according to The Economist report.
Perhaps, in light of skyrocketing healthcare costs in the US, investment in emerging markets will provide some cheaper medical alternatives. Yet foreign-made medical devices have yet to flood the American market, in part because safety regulations in India and elsewhere are not as robust as FDA regulations in the US.
There’s no doubt however that we’ll be seeing more and more innovation from and investment in emerging markets, with more attention paid to lining up compliance requirements across continents. And the next time you visit the hospital and get reusable sutures, you can thank Chinese innovation.