Medical market planning
Medical equipment is one of those fields of British industry which periodically comes in for attack by one or other of the various groups concerned with its procurement, purchase or use. It is criticised for its performance, for its cheeseparing specifications, for poor ergonomic and detail design or for its lack of attention to modern methods of production.
Such sweeping comments often fail to take into account the diversity of the equipment involved and of the industry which produces it. There is a world of difference between the technologies and production methods used in the development of, say, wheelchairs or walking aids, and the highly sophisticated equipment used for certain kinds of diagnosis, surgery or research. Some companies make medical equipment as a side-line - perhaps an adaptation of a device developed for an entirely different purpose - while others are specialists in a particular type of product. It is not easy, therefore, to define the industry as a coherent entity, and most generalisations tend to be misleading.
It is still true to say, however, that many health authorities are dependent for their purchasing decisions on the recommendations of individual doctors or consultants, who may not be aware of the needs of hospital staff, patients or the types of equipment which have been bought in other regions. This has tended to discourage those manufacturers concerned with quantity-produced items from introducing the kind of product rationalisation programmes which would be considered essential by other industries.
British manufacturers have certainly gained from their unique relationship with the National Health Service which has been directly responsible for the industry's considerable growth in recent years. But to make the most out of the £70m home market, and a potential export market of hundreds of millions, there is clearly much still to be done to raise design standards, to make better use of economies of scale and to improve specification and procurement policies.
With these thoughts in mind, the Design Council, in association with King Edward's Hospital Fund and the Department of Health and Social Security, has launched an awards programme for the British medical equipment industry, starting next year.
Through this scheme, industrialists will be able to draw on the services of the Design Council's field officers, who can introduce them to experts in value engineering, production techniques and industrial design. In due course it might be possible through the awards scheme to produce a catalogue of selected products - on similar lines to the Council's catalogue of street furniture allowing hospital management committees to make more informed choices and to encourage more uniformity.
The importance of the industry, in both human and economic terms, is bound to grow in the years to come, as it keeps pace with advances in medical science. The awards scheme will hopefully draw attention to the special role which design will have to play.