In MedTech, when we describe commoditization it means a few things: the market is mature, saturated, and unless you can compete aggressively on price, this isn’t the market for you! In a commoditized market, most products are homogenous or similar, leaving little room for product differentiation and price increases.
But as one market opportunity closes, another opens…
Ultrasound imaging technology has been in widespread use since the 1980s and is now considered to be the gold standard of care across many therapy areas, including obstetrics, orthopedics, and cardiovascular to name a few.
The ultrasound imaging market is considered a mature market, with distinct premium, mid-range, and value tiers, but imaging technology overall has peaked in acuity. Although the premium and mid-range tiers have become relatively saturated, there has been some movement in the value-tiered device market.
In the past few years, manufacturers like Philips, Fujifilm, and GE Healthcare have released portable, hand-held ultrasound machines. Most include a monitor the size of an iPad, with a transducer connected to it. And some devices, like Philips’ Lumify—which features a transducer that can be connected to a variety of compatible Android tablets—go even further. These portable ultrasound devices are accompanied with dedicated cloud servers and mobile apps that allow for the wireless and immediate transmission of ultrasound images. This trend towards inexpensive, portable, and, most importantly, wireless ultrasound imaging could have a very large impact on the efficiency of health services delivery and global accessibility to ultrasound imaging.
Paramedics en route to a hospital could have images sent immediately to the emergency room, allowing awaiting doctors to prepare for the incoming patient. Or, ultrasound images could be sent for review to doctors around the world, and would not be restricted to specialists available in the immediate vicinity. This technology is already being used by militaries, where it can be difficult for radiologists to reach wounded soldiers in the battlefield, and even NASA, where the same difficulty applies to ill astronauts in space.
The beauty of these portable ultrasound devices is that they are now a fraction of the cost of what’s currently available on the market and—aside from a stable internet connection—do not require infrastructure to support them. Instead of having patients going to local hospitals or clinics where larger traditional units are usually kept, these portable units allow healthcare workers unrestricted movement. Essentially they can take images and have them assessed from anywhere and at any time, significantly shortening diagnosis times while also increasing accessibility to ultrasound imaging.
All these factors make portable ultrasound imaging devices the perfect product for emerging markets and healthcare systems in low-resource settings. But there is one catch. Wifi and mobile connections may be spotty at best or nonexistent in rural regions of most developing countries. As a result, it would be essential that an offline mode be built into these portable ultrasound imaging devices and their accompanying apps. This would allow ultrasound technicians to store an ultrasound image until they are able to reach a reliable internet connection, such as their local clinic or internet cafe where they can then upload the image to a secure server. This would be especially helpful for reaching remote and rural populations, which before may not have had any access to ultrasound imaging.
In the case of ultrasound imaging, although commoditization has meant that these devices are becoming more homogenous and less expensive, a completely new market opportunity has opened up in the form of portable, handheld ultrasound devices. Not only is demand growing in this emerging market segment, but these devices could potentially be the solution to universal access to ultrasound imaging. As the technology becomes even more inexpensive, quicker to produce, and gains additional features such as durable, water- and dust-proof hardware, device uptake in emerging markets will grow quickly. And to be honest, it would be pretty cool if you could get your ultrasound image taken in the middle of the Amazonian rainforest, and have your results sent back to you within 48 hours’ time.