For Cheap Medical Devices, Look To Developing World

General Surgery News has reported on a session held at last year’s American College of  Surgeons (ACS) meeting, during which the audience was challenged to think about how to bring “extreme affordability” to medical devices. Its premise for the article is that the United States spent about $95 million on medical devices in 2011, roughly half of what the rest of the world combined spent on these technologies.

So the ACS panel session focused on what is referred to in the piece as the overwhelming cost of surgical technology. The session profiled surgeons from around the world who have devised innovative and inexpensive solutions to real-world problems.

According to the General Surgery News article, “The session was inspired by a class at the Stanford Institute of Design, called “Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability.” Students in the class develop affordable products for the impoverished parts fo the world. One of their great successes is the JaipurKnee, a polymer-based polycentric knee joint that can be manufactured for less than $20 and is designed for amputees in the developing world”.

Over the next months, General Surgery News will profile a series of surgeons who have found affordable solutions—often under $5—to vexing surgical and clinical issues. The group includes an American military surgeon, a Canadian laparoscopic surgeon and surgeons who practice in crisis situations around the world.

But, here’s a flip side to the debate. Isn’t it a bit arrogant to think innovation at the lowest cost end could be done best in US universities or by US researchers? The best kind of innovation is “needs-driven”, so by definition is most likely to occur where the need is. In another article, which can be found here, the author, writing in Fastcompany.com, talks about brilliant examples of innovation which have taken place in some of the poorest parts of the World. Given that the average salary in India is $1000 per year, compared with $50,000 in USA, its not hard to see that there may be different and critical economic constraints on healthcare.

Explaining why an artificial leg costs $20,000 in USA and yet in Thailand a lightweight, durable and comfortable “equivalent” has been made for $20 is probably quite simple. One’s made from recycling yoghurt pots, one probably from carbon fibre composites. One’s been through some form of regulatory pathway, one hasn’t. In one country, people (or insurers) can afford $20,000. In the other they can’t.

But the meaningful point in all this is that this so-called reverse innovation, where needs-driven cheap solutions are spawned in the developing markets rather than corporate America, may represent the future as big companies seek to exploit the developing World opportunity.

Source: General Surgery News, Fastcompany.com