Experts fear for Europe’s medical engineering

Guido Gebhardt reports

When over 3,000 international experts gathered at the World Congress on Medical Physics and Biomedical Engineering in Munich, Germany to evaluate future trends, they heard that Asia is showing major gains in medical engineering — a field in which computer sciences are a key innovation driver – but that Europe is on the way to innovation leadership in telemedicine and e-health.

In Germany’s economy medical engineering is one of the most innovative sectors. Following a 2.5% growth in sales to €17.8 billion in 2008, experts also anticipate a slight increase this year as well. This makes the country’s medical engineering industry one of the few sectors that continues to grow despite the economic crisis. According to a VDE survey conducted among its 1,300 corporate members, Germany will maintain its top position in the sector until 2020. However, Asia is quickly catching up.
The new VDE trend study MedTech 2020, presented at the World Congress on Medical Physics and Biomedical Engineering, identifies computer sciences as by far the most important technology for the industry, according to around 32% of those surveyed in the sciences, university clinics and business community. Cellular and biotechnologies were ranked second, with information and communications technology third.

Asia catching up
Germany’s innovative strength in the industry is notable: Around 9% of sales is currently invested in research and development, and nearly 15% of the roughly 100,000 industry employees are involved in R&D. The MedTech 2020 study indicates that, ten years from now, regenerative medicine, telemedicine, e-health, prostheses and implants will see the most dynamic innovations, elevating the importance of these fields.
Europe will be able to maintain its status as one of the leading regions in all innovation fields, while Asia will make strong gains primarily at the expense of the USA.
Most of those surveyed believed that diagnostic imaging, currently showing the strongest sales, will continue to boom. Every second participant rated North America as currently the leading region in this field. Three in 10 respondents ranked Europe as the leading region, while only one in 10 named Asia. However, by 2020 numbers will have sharply shifted: 48% of those surveyed see Asia as the leading region, 26% ranked North America and only 16% selected Europe.
Prostheses and implants: 60% of respondents believed that North America is the most innovative region right now. But by 2014, this percentage drops to 41% and, by 2020, to only 32%. In the study, Asia makes the biggest leap in ranking. At present, only 6% of those surveyed saw Asia as the leader in prostheses and implants, but the number jumped to 35% by 2020. Every third respondent believed that Europe will slip from first to third place over the next 10 years.
Similar trends are expected for surgery, minimal-invasive medicine, endoscopy and image-related therapeutics. In these fields, North America will drop from 60 percentage points today to 38 percentage points in 2020. Europe’s position today, at 27%, will rise only slightly to 29% in 2020. The biggest leap in ratings for innovative strength is expected for Asia, predicted to jump from 11% today to 30% in 2020, to reach virtually the same level as Europe.
The surveyed experts see Europe in a robust second place in innovation rankings for in vitro diagnostics. While North America is expected to slip in in vitro diagnostics from 58% to 37% in 2020, Europe holds steady at around 37% over the same time span. However here, too, Asia must be seen as the big winner – jumping from a low 5% today to 25% in 2020. Regenerative medicine shows a similar picture. North America will be able to defend its lead position over Europe, despite losses. Asia, on the other hand, will catch up and is seen as the most innovative region in 2020 by 28% of respondents. Overall, Asia would then be a close third behind Europe.
A neck-and-neck race seems to be shaping up in the fields of telemedicine and e-health. Here, Europe currently takes second place (39%) behind North America (50%). However, in five years Europe (41%) is expected to overtake the USA (38%) and build up a five percentage point lead by 2020. Asia should catch up in this as well, and 29% of respondents predicted that the region will be the world’s most innovative by 2020.

Eastern Europe: the most bureaucratic
Some 29% of the international respondents rated lack of funding as the biggest barrier to innovation, and an additional 17% listed that deficit in second place. This view is less typical in Germany than in the rest of Western Europe. According to the VDE, this milder view reflects Germany’s policy of improved funding in recent years.
Some 20% of the experts in both Germany and worldwide rated bureaucracy as the biggest hurdle to innovation, and an additional 17% in Germany, and 15% worldwide, ranked it in second place. Eastern Europe appears to be the most bureaucratic region: 30% of respondents from there rated bureaucracy as the biggest barrier to innovation. Official approval procedures for innovative medical technologies are perceived in Germany to be a bigger hurdle than in neighbouring countries, even though the procedures in Germany and large parts of Europe are uniformly regulated via the EU’s Medical Device Directive.
Background: The MedTech 2020 study
631 international experts, who were submitting and presenting papers at the World Congress on Medical Physics and Biomedical Engineering, were questioned for VDE’s MedTech 2020 study. The broad spectrum of respondents reflects the multidisciplinary nature of the theme. Half of those questioned work at universities, 26% in university clinics and 5% are from businesses. 74% work in applied research, 20% in basic research and 7% in strategic research. A quarter of the respondents hold top positions in their fields.


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