Six years ago, GE Healthcare made a big commotion in health tech when it launched the Mac-i—an affordable ECG device to improve access to cardiac screening in emerging markets. The device was considered a game-changer. It was also one of the company’s early affordable care products, designed to help improve access to low-cost, quality healthcare in emerging markets.
GE Healthcare has now designed about 28 affordable products from its campus in Bangalore, India and sells them all over the world. The company hopes to reach 100 products by 2020. Demand spoke to Shyam Rajan, chief technology officer at GE Healthcare India, about the company’s work and mission to improve access to healthcare for the majority of the world that lacks it.
What are GE Healthcare’s priorities for emerging and underserved markets?
“Of the world’s seven billion people, 75 percent can’t access healthcare. The need significant."
If you look at the healthcare environment in most emerging markets, the most pressing issue is improving access to high-quality but affordable care. Addressing this need is not simply a matter of bringing existing healthcare products and service models to new markets; GE Healthcare has an enormous portfolio of products, but many of them may not be able to make an impact in the emerging markets because either the cost is too high or a number of other factors.
Instead, we are building a portfolio of products for these markets, many of them from scratch. We are focusing on four clinical areas where we feel we can make a difference: infant and maternal care, where we are working on ultrasound devices, incubators, and baby warmers; cardiology, where we have a whole range of ECG machines; oncology, where there is a severe shortage of cancer prevention and treatment options; and critical care, where most equipment for operating theaters and intensive care units is prohibitively expensive.
What is the biggest challenge to improving access to healthcare globally?
Simply the amount of need: of the seven billion people in the world, 75 percent don’t have access to quality healthcare. So far, there are not many solutions focused on low- and middle-income markets.
We also understand that we can’t come up with all of the ideas ourselves. We do a lot of work through partnerships, supporting models that are complementary to ours. For example, in India, we worked with CAMTech by hosting their Hackathon—a design competition that is part of their local innovation initiative. Participants are given access to our campus and labs in Bangalore.
We would like to see more players get involved in developing healthcare technology for emerging markets. The need is so significant; the more players that emerge globally, the more impact can be made.
“You have to make your products work in these environments. There is no other option. You can’t just assume something won’t work.”
What would you say to those who argue that this kind of work isn’t business, it’s charity?
We are creating new customers from communities who have never had access to healthcare before. It is very powerful work. For example, rural doctors who were using 200-watt light bulbs as baby warmers can now afford products designed for that specific purpose. Doctors and hospitals are helping more patients because for the first time, they can access—and purchase—the right technology. With the right portfolio of products, you can make and impact and do good business. It is definitely not charity.
What lessons has GE Healthcare learned over the years in doing this work?
You have to make your products work in these environments. There is no other option. It is challenging, but you cannot just assume something won’t work because, say, the infrastructure is insufficient. You have to understand your constraints, understand what is available, and design products that are good enough to work. Then, you look for impact: healthcare products for low-resource markets have to show an ability to positively impact the situation before proving themselves on the business end. But if they’re designed the right way, the business will come. It is a long journey, though. It takes patience and time to learn.