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A Little Can Go a Long Way

Developing medical devices for low-income and rural markets could actually pay off--in terms of social impact, at least.

In a recent MPMN virtual event focused on implantable device design, keynote speaker Venkat Rajan, industry manager, medical devices, at Frost & Sullivan, identified low-income consumer segments as a trend to watch in the next decade. He also cited 'low-income urban care' and 'rural care' as buzz words we can expect to hear in 2011 and beyond.

And while low-cost products for these markets won't be a company's cash cow, there are advantages. "These might not necessarily be huge revenue streams, but they could help raise the profile and footprint of companies entering new markets," Rajan suggests.

More importantly, however: Developing low-cost products for these underserved markets is humanitarian. Just because a region's inhabitants don't have money doesn't mean they don't deserve medical care. Unfortunately, that sometimes seems like the message that these markets are receiving. One in 64,900 people in high-income countries has access to computed tomography (CT), for example. In contrast, one in 3.5 million people in developing or low-income countries has access to CT technology, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Serving these markets, however, requires a completely different mindset. "In the past, most manufacturers have simply taken the approach of selling the same products in emerging markets that are available in the U.S., Western Europe, Japan, etc. However, I think moving forward we will start to see increasing unique designs tailored to the needs of those markets--whether for rural and remote regions or those in concentrated urban settings," Rajan says.

Creating unique designs tailored to the market is really the best approach, after all. As WHO notes, traditional medical devices designed for high-income countries are often not suitable for use in developing countries. The technological divide and lack of trained staff can render a high-tech product useless or counterproductive. Furthermore, sources of reliable power and electricity are often not easily accessible. "In order to be effective, the device must be suitable for the context in which it will be used," WHO states. "This requires taking into account the available infrastructure, human and financial resources, and local requirements."

Engineers will have to get creative in their material choices and processes to keep costs down and technology simple, though. They can even follow the lead of inventive engineering students. Students at Rice University, for instance, employed a salad spinner, plastic lids, yogurt containers, and a hot-glue gun to design a $30 rudimentary centrifuge. Likewise, an innovative student at MIT developed a negative-pressure wound therapy system for roughly $3; currently available portable units cost $100 per day to rent, according to MIT.

A little can go a long way. Start developing for developing countries and make a difference.

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