In excellent health
medical equipmentkey playersLonger life expectancy and an eternal quest for youth fuels demand for hi-tech devices, writes Rosheen Rodwell
GROWING OLD is, unfortunately, a fact of life. But the good news is that people are living longer. This, coupled with the quest for eternal youth, is fuelling the growth of a multibillion dollar health-care industry worldwide.
In 1955, global average life expectancy was only 48 years. But that figure will reach 75 years by 2025, according to the World Health Organisation.
As the elderly often need medical attention and are avid consumers of health-related products and services, the health-care and medical equipment industry is experiencing rapid growth. The development of new products that promise to defy age and reduce weight has contributed significantly to this trend. Everything from body mass index calculators to body fat scales is becoming popular.
The general increase in health awareness has also helped support this growth.
Despite such global trends, the medical equipment industry in Hong Kong has suffered over the past few years, according to Dieter Wolbart, vice-president of Siemens Hong Kong Medical Solutions.
The Sars outbreak and the Asian economic crisis dealt a heavy blow to the industry and it took some time for demand to pick up again. However, last year was a good one for Siemens and Mr Wolbart is optimistic about the future.
He said Hong Kong had a high quality of health care and patients were knowledgeable and demanded the latest medical equipment.
'Patients in Hong Kong are well informed. They know exactly what kind of equipment they expect to be screened on, or treated with,' he said.
This has made the market very competitive.
According to Mr Wolbart, hospitals compete with each other to have the latest and the best technology. Hong Kong has more of the latest-generation magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines than any other place.
As one of the oldest electrical engineering companies in the world - set up 160 years ago - Siemens is a pioneer in high-end medical equipment such as MRI machines and computed tomography (CT) scanners and in areas such as nuclear medicine and molecular medicine. It is also focusing on personalised medicine - the new practice of tailoring treatment to a patient's genetic profile.
Computers and digital technology are playing a key role in the development of the industry. Innovations such as micro-miniature and remote surgery and tissue-engineered organs are creating a strong demand for new medical and health-care devices, while advanced information technology is helping to create them.
Thomas Chan, sales manager for Sanko Medical Systems Hong Kong, said there was a growing demand for computer-aided diagnosis, while digital processing was transforming the way images produced by scanning machines were treated.
Images can now be adjusted and enhanced, and patients' files stored on disks. This makes retrieval of images simple and saves hospitals the trouble of having to keep hard copies.
The growth in demand for hi-tech medical equipment and the expectation that the Department of Health will soon introduce statutory safety controls have led to a growing need for biomedical engineers. There is a similar demand for them in the mainland too.
According to Daniel Chow of the department of health technology and informatics at the Polytechnic University, this is because biomedical engineers have a reputation for maintaining high safety standards. Mainland manufacturers have to meet mandatory quality and safety requirements, and engineers are needed to make sure that products conform to these standards.
'Companies have spent a lot of money developing products, so employing biomedical engineers from Hong Kong is necessary to maintain high quality standards,' he said.
Professor Chow said biomedical engineers were unique in that they had the medical knowledge to communicate effectively with doctors, and had the mathematical rigour of an engineer - a combination necessary for the development of medical equipment.
Graduates of Professor Chow's bachelor of science degree in biomedical engineering are recognised by the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers and can expect to work with the Hospital Authority, private hospitals, or companies selling medical equipment.
University departments also need biomedical engineering graduates to fill research positions.
University of Hong Kong, City University and Polytechnic University, all employ graduates as researchers, as do many overseas colleges. Last year, two of Professor Chow's students took up research and development positions in the US.
Professor Chow is looking to fill 30 places every year with students who are able to deal with a cross-disciplinary subject and, most importantly, have a social responsibility.
'That is a key part of our training,' Professor Chow said.
'Some of the products in the market do not have any scientific evidence [behind them]. We want our students to have the ethics to look into these products and see whether they are safe for humans,' he said.
Field service engineer
Senior technical manager
CT scanner A computed tomography scanner, for general body imaging
MRI scanner The magnetic resonance imaging scanner can detect small tumours and is mainly used for scanning the brain
PET scanner The positron emission tomography scanner is used for tumour detection
Lab on a chip The latest in biomedical engineering - it is an entire analysis system on a smart card that provides the basis for comprehensive and cost-effective diagnosis
Biomaterial Artificial material for the replacement of missing body parts
HKMHDMA The Hong Kong Medical and Healthcare Devices Manufacturers Association was set up in June 2003 to represent Hong Kong's medical equipment manufacturers