Beginning a healthy new era?

Medical technology is a perfect example of an area where, given half a chance, the UK really could lead the world.

The UK government finally seems to be waking up to the potential of the UK’s multi-billion pound medical engineering sector.

Health officials are now working with the industry in a bid to speed up the introduction of new technologies to the NHS, and give companies engaging in research and development in the sector a better idea of where the commercial opportunities lie.

Part of the reason for our potential in medical technology lies with the NHS, which has currently resumed its traditional role as a pre-election political football.

Outsiders looking in on the NHS, however, see the world’s biggest provider of healthcare wielding an already mighty £15bn procurement budget that both major political parties have pledged to maintain or increase.

What a customer to have in your own backyard. The potential pull effect is similar to the one currently sucking global defence companies towards the US, where military spending is big and growing.

Strong tradition

The UK also has a strong tradition of research and development among universities and smaller enterprises active in the MedTech sector.

Add to that the growing number of advanced engineering companies entering the market and you have, by any standards, the makings of a world-beating industry.

It is telling that General Electric, the US industrial behemoth, chose to site the headquarters of its medical operation here in the UK — the first time a GE global division has been based outside the US.

So much for the good news. This being the NHS, however, nothing is that straightforward, which is why the Health Industries Task Force (HITF), the body set up to co-ordinate the joint efforts between the sector and the government, should be wished the best of luck.

Recent initiatives by the IT sector to roll-out new systems across the NHS have hardly been an unqualified success. In addition, the organisation inevitably possesses some of the traits that make the public sector such a frustrating beast to deal with — suspicion of change and a culture of ‘cheapest is best’ among them.

It may be that the highly-politicised debate around the future of the NHS will be the medical technology industry’s biggest ally in its attempts to reform its relationship with the health service.

Wanting the best

Whether over waiting times or dirty wards, the NHS’s customers — all of us in other words — are increasingly refusing to settle for second best.

The same will apply to medical technology. If a device or a technology is available that can treat us more effectively, more painlessly or more conveniently, we want it there for us in the NHS.

And God help the politician who stands in its way.