GE sees healthy gains in low-cost medical devices

V-Raja-ge-healthcareIndia 15th November 2009 V. Raja, President and CEO, GE Healthcare, South Asia, and Managing Director, Wipro finds the idea of a cheap portable ECG device that could be set up at tele-radiology centres across India and linked to a physician at a central location, “fascinating”.

“Imagine what this can do to increase access to healthcare delivery in India and address the problem of shortage of qualified physicians,” V Raja says. Wireless and Bluetooth technology can even help the ECG devices beam live data to a physician’s mobile phone instantly.

The fascinating idea of bringing technology to the patient’s bedside at a cost that suits his pocket could become a reality soon courtesy GE Healthcare, the health solutions business of General Electric. Some 1,200 healthcare researchers at GE’s John F Welch Research Centre in Bangalore (GE’s first and largest research lab outside the US) are already putting finishing touches to MAC 600, a portable ECG device that is expected to be launched next month.

MAC 600 will be an upgraded version of MAC 400 (launched last year) and will cost “much less” than the Rs 45,000 to Rs 50,000 price tag for the latter. The regular ECG machines in the market cost Rs 7 lakh to Rs 10 lakh.

While GE Healthcare is tightlipped on the details, consider the features of MAC 400 to get an idea of what the “upgraded” MAC 600 could offer. It’s easy to operate with one-touch operation (any para-medical or technical staff can therefore be trained to operate these devices) and is capable of completing 100 ECGs for every three-hour battery charge — that means one week of operation in a village where the availability of electricity is a major constraint.

mac-600-indiaMAC 400 can be easily put into a backpack (it weighs about a kg, far less than standard laptops) and has embedded software that analyses the data collected by the test and interprets them in the printout in English. To cut costs and development time, off-the-shelf components were used as much as possible. For example, the printout is done by the same component used to print a bus ticket. It is manufactured by Wipro GE Healthcare at Whitfield on the outskirts of Bangalore.

GE Healthcare has sold about 6,000 units of the MAC 400 so far. This stripped-down version of the MAC series is a part of the company’s Rs 28,000-crore “Healthy Imagination, Global Initiative” project.

“As you keep experimenting on these lines, costs go down. At our Bangalore centre, a lot of R&D is going into making the device cheaper in the days to come,” says Raja.

Experiments such as these have made GE Healthcare India’s business half a billion dollar strong. “The whole idea is how far we can take healthcare technology to the people. So, going ahead, you will not be surprised to see ultrasound like an i-pod, or a stethoscope being replaced with ultrasound,” he said.

Of the 100-plus healthcare products GE has planned to launch over the next couple of years, a quarter of them will be developed and manufactured in India. The products in the pipeline span segments of healthcare including cardiology, maternal care, baby care, neurological diseases and cancer.

Since the company manufactures the products in India at its FDA-approved centres, they are sold not just in India but also in the US, in China, and several developed and developing countries. Of its $500-million Indian turnover, exports constitute 50 per cent.

Also, while Mac 400, made for India with a QWERTY keyboard, was updated as Mac 800 with cell phone-like texting tools and recently launched in the US, it will also be manufactured in China shortly.

Portable ECG is just the latest in a series of such innovations by the Bangalore lab. Six months ago, the company launched Tejas DR-F, a digital x-ray, and has sold about 20 of them since then. The first digital x-ray to be made in India, it is available at Rs 60,000, almost a third of the cost of an imported digital x-ray.

In the maternal-infant care segment, the company has two products in the market: Lullaby and Lullaby baby warmer — for safe treatment of infant jaundice and protecting the baby from infections — available at one-tenth the price of imported ones. The company, which is a leader in the global ultrasound market, also offers Logiq A3, a low-cost, powerful black and white ultrasound for Indian and emerging markets. The company is also working on a baby warmer, which a mother can carry and operate.

While GE continues its endeavour to make medical imaging and other equipment affordable to the Indian market, it hopes to expand its footprint through public-private partnerships. The PPP models worked out in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh have been successful for the company and Raja said, they look forward to replicate them in other states.

In Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, GE Healthcare has set up diagnostic centres at select government medical colleges. The charges for the patients are unchanged, the centre and the equipment will be run by the company and its partners. The government lays down regulations and monitors the centre. For every 10 patients, a below-poverty-line patient will be treated free, as decided by the government.

Apart from world-class research, what has helped keep the production cost low is the company’s policy of manufacturing not just the finished products in India, but also many of the components that go into it. Local manufacturing helps directly negotiate the features of the products with the buyer segment and saves customs duty.

And then, there are other fiscal benefits by manufacturing in export-oriented units. Freight charges can be almost eliminated and labour charges in India are as competitive as that in China. Indigenously sourcing volumes to High Level Assemblies would bring down the manufacturing cost. “Also, local manufacturing insulates the consumer from the vagaries of the exchange rate,” Raja says.

Raja says GE Healthcare has opened up a new opportunity for India’s healthcare initiatives. “It is like what you get to see in the telecom or automobile market. Of course, we are a far cry from where these markets are today, but certainly we are in that direction. We can clearly foresee the possibility of that kind of revolution in the healthcare sector,” he says.

The revolution makes ample business sense, too. GE Healthcare expects to double its current Indian turnover to $1 billion in the next three to four years.