Innovating Medical Devices for the Next Growth Market

With a massive and rapidly expanding population in need of care, there are huge opportunities for medical device manufacturers in the developing world – if you can crack the code.

Innovating Medical Devices for the Next Growth Market

Eighty-two percent of the world’s population lives in developing nations, and these countries will add 2.3 billion people by 2050. India alone plans to increase its hospitals’ capacity by 80,000 beds every year for the next five years.

While local pharma, medical device and medical supply companies exist in these regions, there is also a strong culture of brand affinity and desire for “Western” technical excellence in health care services. U.S. companies can compete for this exponential growth in the marketplace with the right offering.

Currently, many device manufacturers utilize ill-advised strategies to develop and market their products to developing and emerging economies.

We see firms stripping down existing models, selling older product or focusing their higher-end devices on the limited segments of the market that can afford them. This approach does not properly align the business or product to the community, and leaves a good deal of room for improvement.

In fact, the World Health Organization reports that a staggering three-quarters of medical devices donated by rich countries to developing nations remain unused.  Beyond the sobering human toll, this is a serious waste of high-value resources.

There is a better way. Businesses that crack the code to develop devices for emerging nations can help improve care for patients, avoid costly missteps, and earn a substantial share of this growth market with a viable development model.

Here are four tips we’ve used to guide our clients’ device development toward this opportunity:

1. Get feet on the ground, get attuned to the environment.

Photos, diagrams, and anecdotal evidence of a setting won’t cut it.  To really understand how a device may be used and cared for, there’s no substitute to showing up with a camera and asking targeted questions.

Innovating Medical Devices for the Next Growth Market

To really understand how a device may be used and cared for, there's no substitute to showing up with a camera.

If the plan is to develop a health care solution targeted at emerging markets, the shocking truth may be that your product will be used in non-sterile environments, cleaned infrequently or may even be exposed to heat, rain, dust or pollution. Armed with that insight, designers have to engineer for and spec to withstand such austere conditions.

In other cases equipment in the developing world can be more sophisticated than what is used in an advanced economy. Our team found neo-natal units in Czechoslovakia which were more advanced than many in the United Kingdom – prompting us to guide our client to a more complex product for a blood therapy treatment which provided increased functionality. In the “developed” nation, conversely, restricted accessibility and outmoded infrastructure proved to be a design challenge.

2.  Understand your user.  Beware: Your user may not be who you expect.

In the U.S. and Canada, nurses typically handle the labor-intensive set-up and prep when connecting patients to medical equipment – meaning Western device manufacturers make simplicity in this regard a design mandate.

In China, however, physicians often handle or closely oversee product set-up. In this case, simplification is the wrong focus, and localization of controls may not be necessary as highly educated physicians (with a deeper understanding of the therapies) have less need for kitted and translated content.

Innovating Medical Devices for the Next Growth Market

In the U.S. and Canada, nurses typically handle the labor-intensive set-up and prep when connecting patients to medical equipment. In China, physicians often handle or closely oversee product set-up. Are you designing for the right user?

While many approach research looking for ‘Voice of the Customer’ (VOC) data, it’s vital to get a more holistic view – or what we call ‘Voice of the Community,’ taking into account all stakeholders who interact with, purchase, and influence the acquisition and set-up of devices.

3.  Factor in language and cultural differences – not just between countries, but also within them.

English is commonly spoken in major metropolitan areas in India, so the U.S. version of a training guide may work just fine for urban hospitals there. In China, where most practitioners don’t speak English, a common solution is to use icons instead of text.  Not so fast.  Some English words like ‘Power On’ are recognized across cultures in an iconic sense – making text more effective than a supposed “universal” symbol that could be misunderstood.

These differences are subtle but significant, and they can affect safety, accuracy, and development costs. One common mistake we have discovered involves literal translation of text on the Product/User Interface (not in context of what the device does, who the audience is, or how the terms relate to the use of the device), in some cases truncating the words and combining to display one illegible combination of characters on screen. This commonly results in text that is completely incomprehensible, leaving the user utterly confused.

4.  Design for real life.

In a perfect world, all manufacturers’ instructions would be conscientiously followed. In real life we’ve seen staff overseas use cleaners and chemicals, for example, which damage plastics and screens, compromising functionality and reliability.

Bemoaning the situation isn’t good enough.  Instead of expecting users to follow your instructions, the products themselves must be designed and engineered to withstand such local practices.

Doing this right requires local connections, the ability to open doors and an experienced staff with cultural competencies. Companies that take a research-based approach to developing devices will be well positioned to succeed in these huge (and rapidly expanding) markets.

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Innovating Medical Devices for the Next Growth Market

Erik J. Moses is the director of research and insights at Product Development Technologies (PDT), where his role is connecting the dots between business and design through research. His projects run the gamut from branding initiatives, consumer packaging and electronics to complex medical devices and defense programs.

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