An emerging area of biomedical industry activity in Europe is Finland's Oulu region, located about 600 kilometers north of the capital city of Helsinki. Companies operating within the healthcare sector are creating sales worth nearly a quarter of a billion euros, producing products such as heart rate monitors, wireless monitoring and location devices, and providing digital information services and other solutions aimed at promoting healthcare services and well-being. Currently there are 64 companies operating within the healthcare sector, and estimates are that the number of workers within the industry will double over the next few years.

"We are in many ways unique and world leaders" in the sector, said Jorma Kaitera, who directs a regional program called Wellness Forum. The program, which operates with the assistance of state funding, is directed toward boosting businesses operating within the healthcare industry. A number of the Oulu region firms also have expanded their production outside the Finnish borders, producing additional revenue worth several millions of euros.

Much of the innovative work being done in the region is a result of cooperation between Oulu University and emerging companies, with some 1,500 new jobs being created in the sector in recent years. The university, whose focus is on technical and medical science, has about 15,000 students. The area also is home to VTT Electronics Finland's leading electronic research facility. Nokia is the Oulu region's largest company, employing some 5,000. Some 500 companies in the area specialize in high technology.

Kaitera sees the sector as being primed for growth. "There is still a lot of potential for new ideas," he said, "because the majority of healthcare services are still beyond the reach of wireless and Internet-based solutions."

Polar Electro is one of the key players in the industry. It is perhaps the world's largest maker of heart rate monitoring devices. Several other smaller firms also have entered the market, including Tracker Oy and Innokas Medical Oy, the latter of which is in collaboration with GE Healthcare (Waukesha, Wisconsin). Innokas Medical is currently in the process of introducing what it says will be the world's first "wireless hospital," a development expected to be much in demand in coming years. Another Oulu region company of note is FRWD Technologies Ltd., which is focused on producing wireless devices for the measurement and analysis of athletic performances.

The growing area of self-care services also is opening up new opportunities for many firms. One company in the region specializing in this area is Mawell Oy, which is involved with transferring healthcare information services to the Internet. Mawell Oy develops and produces software and data communications solutions for the healthcare industry. Its Mawell Care solution provides healthcare professionals with a means of managing information in the mobile work environment. "With the help of the system, healthcare workers no longer have to, for instance, go to the office first thing in the morning to obtain patient data," said Chief Executive Officer Tero Silvola. "Instead they can receive all necessary information and healthcare instructions wirelessly, straight to their hand-held computers or to their Nokia Communicators."

In addition, the Mawell Contact Center information service is responsible for providing inhabitants of the entire capital region in Finland with healthcare telephone services. The information service guides customers to the right treatment, support for self-care, and frees resources for actual care work. "The [healthcare] industry is constantly changing," Silvola said. "The goal of Mawell is to expand all of its business areas, such as wireless processing and archiving of medical image information as well as its healthcare management services, to the Central European markets."

Expanded EU broadens healthcare market

The addition of 10 central and eastern European countries to the European Union (EU) last month has created a single trading zone for the healthcare industry of almost 500 million customers, according to Frost & Sullivan (New York). It is forecasting that the total EU healthcare industry including medical devices and equipment, pharmaceuticals and drugs, and health services will grow at a compound annual growth rate of 6.4% from 2003 to 2008.

"The growth of the pharmaceuticals and drugs as well as medical devices and equipment segments is directly linked to the health services segment," said Frost & Sullivan research analyst Lasya Narasimhachari. "Increases in the number of hospitals, nursing homes, home healthcare services, dental services and laboratory services are given high priority in national healthcare expenditure, which could help in the growth of the three segments." Narasimhachari said the process of economic integration in Europe "has been a catalyst to the diffusion of health technology and opened national markets to competition, tending to equalize prices and reduce costs. Technological progress is expected to become a key factor for economic growth and help meet the challenges posed by an aging society."

Frost & Sullivan said the European market for medical devices is thriving, having totaled $41.2 billion in 2002. It said that growth could have something to do with the acknowledgement that prevention "is just as important as therapy." On the pharmaceuticals side, Narasimhachari said the future availability of new drugs is expected to be influenced by the "radical differences in economic and market conditions and healthcare coverage for medicines" between the existing 15 EU member states and the accession countries.

The huge aging population in Europe also is likely to drive research on more effective drugs, Frost & Sullivan said. Increasing life expectancy has resulted in Europe having a growing percentage people over 65. "This can have a deep impact on the healthcare system, especially drug development, since the over-65 age group is the single largest user of pharmaceutical products," Narasimhachari.

With expansion comes the concern of ensuring that products of uniform high quality are available throughout the EU, Frost & Sullivan said. "This can be achieved by enforcing international standards of intellectual property protection and a sustainable basis for the industry to supply innovative medicines throughout the EU," according to Narasimhachari.

Health policies in the EU can affect all three segments, with public and private health insurance funds playing a critical role in drafting reimbursement policies. The social protection structure is expected to undergo changes and the resultant reforms could lead to increased out-of-pocket expenditures, Frost & Sullivan said.

Service providers named for PACS program

Millions of patients in the UK will get treatment more quickly and efficiently thanks to new picture archiving and communications systems (PACS) technology to be rolled out beginning this summer, The PACS system, which is being established under the Department of Health's 6 billion information technology (IT) program, will enable images such as X-rays and scans to be stored and sent electronically rather than printed on film and filed manually, thus enabling physicians to provide a much faster diagnosis.

PACS technology will begin to be rolled out this summer through Local Service Providers (LSPs) in five geographic clusters, with nationwide coverage expected to be completed in three years. The LSPs include Accenture, British Telecom, Computer Sciences Corp. and Fujitsu, with GE Healthcare, Phillips Medical, Kodak and ComMedica participating in various contracts.

In announcing the details of the program, Health Minister John Hutton said, "This groundbreaking deal is a great example of how investment in the IT infrastructure is helping to deliver better patient care. The digital image will follow the patient wherever they go and will be able to be recalled whenever and wherever they need to be accessed by a patient's healthcare professional."