LACK of government investment and support for medical engineering research and development is undermining the United Kingdom in a Pounds 44 billion global market, the Royal Academy of Engineering will warn next week, writes Kam Patel.
Worldwide demand for medical engineering products ranging from scanners and microscopes to anaesthetic delivery systems is growing at 10 per cent a year. By contrast the UK market for such products, worth Pounds 2.5 billion, is growing at 5 per cent.
The academy's UK Focus for Biomedical Engineering group says the UK has a strong export potential in the field, but warns that it has little hope of competing in the global market for medical devices unless the government urgently invests more in bringing medical engineering techniques from research into commercial products.
The academy also wants the government to begin challenging the perception that most health-care problems can be addressed by devoting resources to the pharmaceutical approach to treatment.
Research funding for medical engineering is available mainly through the Medical Research Council, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the Department of Health and the Scottish Office. The four joined forces in 1995 to provide focused R&D support for the field through a university-industry programme called MedLINK. Over five years, however, only Pounds 14 million has been allocated through MedLINK.
Ian Young, chairman of the RAE's biomedical engineering focus group said:
"Sadly, MedLINK resources seem adequate for the number of good proposals coming forward. But there is no shortage of good research ideas. The real failure is the appalling state of the industry and government support for it - most firms are tiny and cannot raise their share of matching funds for the research. A rethink of the rules on funding as they apply to biomedical engineering is urgently needed."
The room for expansion of the UK sector is reflected by the fact that Britain imports 60 per cent of the medical equipment it uses - 15 per cent more than the amount imported by Germany and "vastly" more than other major competitor countries such as the United States and Japan.