The Power Of Portability

08 November 2014


Bangalore-based GE Healthcare last week unveiled the Vscan, a pocket-sized, battery-powered ultrasound machine with the look and feel of a cellphone. Vscan takes the ultrasound technology, which doctors use to visually judge the health of a heart, or of a baby inside its mother’s womb, to the patient’s bedside or primary physician’s clinic, the so-called ‘point of care’.

Currently, physicians refer patients to a specialist clinic for ultrasound. It is often tethered to a console and cannot be easily moved. This can pose a problem during emergencies. “Ultrasound technology can save lives, and is put to its best use when it is ubiquitous,” says S. Ganesh Prasad, director (ultrasound business) for GE Healthcare, South Asia. “With Vscan a doctor can visualise organs on the spot, and treat the patient immediately.”

Some doctors such as Mahesh Joshi, head of emergency department at Hyderabad’s Apollo Hospitals, see Vscan as a vital tool in trauma cases where right intervention during the ‘golden hour’ after an accident or a heart attack can improve the outcome. “I can rule out things like internal bleeding, for instance,” he says.

Vscan joins other portable ultrasound machines in the Rs 570-crore Indian ultrasound market. For instance, firms including GE have been attempting to popularise the ‘laptop’ ultrasound for about three years. “Doctors want it only if it is cost-effective and accurate,” says G.S.K. Velu, managing director of Chennai-based Trivitron, a leading trader of medical technology that vends laptop ultrasounds.

Laptop ultrasounds cost between Rs 7 lakh and Rs 14 lakh a piece. For comparison, a basic black-and-white ultrasound sells for less than Rs 3 lakh, while the colour ones start at roughly double that amount. The price can move up to Rs 15 lakh depending on the number of probes (cardiac, abdomen, etc.) per machine, viewing dimensions and accessories such as printers.

Vscan scores on size — it is among the smallest gadgets. And at Rs 5.5-6 lakh, it is competitively priced. Besides, it can be easily moved in a “busy emergency room”, says Joshi, who adds that accuracy of the imageing is not a problem.

With Vscan, GE has widened its offerings in the point-of-care segment where Prasad sees “a huge push”. GE launched two portable ECG machines with attractive financing options for doctors in 2008 and 2009. GE hopes to sell 4,000-5,000 Vscans over the next four-five years. “Potentially, every major hospital can have four or five units, and every small hospital at least one,” says Prasad. A little over 6,000 stationary and portable ultrasound machines were sold in the country in 2009.

GE says it has a commitment for about 50 Vscans from three-four corporate hospitals. But to go massmarket, it will have to target individual doctors and specialist clinics.

Point-of-care devices such as the Vscan could potentially eat into the income that doctors are known to unofficially make for referring patients to labs for tests. Also, whether Vscan is cost-effective or not will depend on the doctor and his practice. “Unlike a central lab or a hospital, if a doctor is making an investment in such a device, the only patients that he can use them on are his own, which may translate into a higher price for patients,” says Jayant Singh, medical technology practice head at Frost & Sullivan. “This may or may not be optimal.

Singh says Vscan will do “very well” in pockets where patients are willing to pay for the speed and convenience. But otherwise, “Herculean efforts” are required to transform doctor perception about such point-of-care diagnostics. GE has bigger plans. In parallel, it has opened discussions with the government to make Vscan available in primary healthcare centres as well.
(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 08-03-2010)