Sunday 4 December 2016

Medtech firms have vital role to play in defusing health time bomb

Doreen McKeown

Published 23/10/2016 | 02:30

Doreen McKeown is Enterprise Ireland Senior VP Life Sciences in Boston
Doreen McKeown is Enterprise Ireland Senior VP Life Sciences in Boston

Recently in these pages we wrote about the crucial role of Irish agri-food and agri-tech in coping with the global demographic time bomb.

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Food availability is only one of the critical issues arising from growing populations. Providing for an ever-greater cohort of aging people with chronic diseases is widely regarded as the single greatest challenge for healthcare into the future.

While Ireland has one of the lowest age profiles in the developed world, Chronic Disease Management (CDM) is an increasingly pressing financial and logistical challenge.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) profile for Ireland attributes 88 percent of deaths to chronic illness such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer and respiratory disease.

Meanwhile, the HSE estimates that the number of adults with chronic disease will be around 40 per cent of the by 2020. More efficient and cheaper-per-capita health services are vital to stop this reaching crisis proportions.

And here's where Ireland comes in again. As global leaders in medtech, we have over 450 companies employing nearly 30,000 people, developing the technologies to bring about lower-cost, more localised treatments.

Ireland is one of the five emerging global hubs with 17 of the world's top 25 MedTech multinationals; a vibrant indigenous industry with over half the country's medtech companies founded here; and a world-class innovation and research ecosystem.

For instance, Curam at NUIG is a dedicated medical devices research centre with six academic partners and over 35 from industry developing lower-cost solutions for chronic illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes through cutting-edge research into biomaterials, stem cells and drug delivery. Curam is one of many medtech initiatives in Ireland. A great deal of work at universities throughout Ireland in areas such as bioengineering and novel materials is orientated towards medical devices and the same can be said of ICT.

Information is crucial to managing health services costs effectively. Big data and electronic health records can improve resource allocation, clinical protocols, diagnostics and treatment. Consumer-based health education and innovations such as telemedicine and home monitoring create new possibilities for self-management.

Apart from healthcare benefits, this is also economically beneficial, generating huge revenues with the potential for even more.

Ireland is the second largest medtech exporter in Europe, supplying 95 of the world's top 100 economies with over €12.5bn of product.

Another economic benefit comes from the sector's regional focus. The Irish Medical Devices Association estimates that up to 80pc of companies in this space are start-ups or SMEs, with clusters in Cork, Limerick, Shannon and in particular, Galway.

Some of these companies were recently looking for business at another medtech hotbed, Minneapolis/St Paul in the US, as part of a life sciences trade mission led by Minister of State for Employment and Small Business, Pat Breen.

The delegation's regional spread was evident with the likes of Bellurgan Precision (Louth), Firefly (Sligo), Prior PLM Medical (Leitrim), Innovative Polymer Compounds (Athlone), Irish Micro Mouldings (Galway) and CompuCal (Cork) among those on the trip.

There are significant opportunities in the US with medical device companies and providers under pressure to find innovative solutions in healthcare. For instance, under the Affordable Care Act, hospitals are penalised for poor patient outcomes and readmission.

Technology that helps physicians monitor patients at home, helps them follow their treatment plan, or fosters patient-physician communication are highly sought after, particularly considering the CDM requirement of the baby boomer generation entering retirement and the much-publicised obesity problem.

US demography is more or less reflective of the developed world - and while Ireland has a bit more time, it won't be long before we face similar challenges.

While the entrepreneurial world looks out for the next killer app, the success of Irish medtech shows lifesaving apps will be more in demand if we are to defuse the demographic time bomb.

Doreen McKeown is Enterprise Ireland Senior VP Life Sciences in Boston

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