Medical device exports skyrocketing

October 7, 2013

Demand hike seen in China, Middle East, Latin America

The Korea Health Industry Development Institute has played a key role in overseas promotion of domestic medical and healthcare products. But the government is moving to take the role as it sees huge growth potential with the global medical and healthcare device market. / Korea Times file

The Korea Health Industry Development Institute has played a key role in overseas promotion of domestic medical and healthcare products. But the government is moving to take the role as it sees huge growth potential with the global medical and healthcare device market. / Korea Times file

By Park Si-soo

Domestic medical device manufacturers are seeing an increase in overseas demand for their products.

They still lag behind the world’s leading makers in terms of product quality and brand power, but are quickly making inroads into developing countries in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Latin America with competitive prices and services.

Aggressively supporting this emerging industry is the government, operating industrial clusters specializing in medical and healthcare businesses in Wonju, Gangwon Province, and Gumi, North Gyeongsang Province. The two cities joined forces last month as part of efforts to get better sales and marketing overseas.

Demand hike

What’s behind the hike in demand is the so-called “BRICS,” an acronym for the five emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

Korea’s exports of medical and healthcare equipment to these countries have increased by 20 percent since 2008, according to the Korea Health Industry Development Institute (KHIDI). Last year alone, the country exported medical devices worth $2.6 billion, up 17.5 percent from the previous year, the institute said, adding the biggest contributor to the hike was the BRICS.

In 2009, BRICS accounted for 15.1 percent of Korea’s overseas sales of medical device. The portion jumped to 23.3 percent last year, the KHIDI said.

By country, China imported Korean products worth $175 million last year, a whopping 66 percent increase from one year earlier. Russia came next in terms of spending volume with $160 million (up 25.4 percent), followed by India with $67 million (up 7.6 percent) and Brazil with $56 million (up 36 percent).

Experts said the global medical device market will continue to grow with more people sensitive to health and well-being. They see huge growth potential in China.

“The Chinese market is expected to show double-digit growth for a while to become the world’s second biggest market by 2018,” a KHIDI official said. “Global top makers such as GE and Philips are gearing up efforts to get bigger slice of the expanding market.”

The government is flexing its muscles in order not to miss the opportunity.

“So far the KHIDI has played the leading role in nurturing the medical device industry,” said an official at the Ministry of Health and Welfare. “We plan to revamp the system to bolster the capacity of domestic firms’ research and development and overseas sales and marketing.”

The Export-Import Bank of Korea, the official export credit agency, has thrown its weight behind the move, designating medical equipment as one of the three “key” products for the Chinese market.

“We see rosy outlook in the sales of medical devices (in China) along with cosmetics and healthcare appliances,” the band said in its Chinese market report last month.

Oh Kyung-il, a senior researcher of the bank who contributed to the report, said it’s largely attributable to China’s middle-income earners who are increasingly sensitive to their health so that they spend more on related products or services.

“The American and European brands currently have upper hand in the market. But it’s still too early for disappointment,” he said. “What we should do in this circumstance is to highlight Korean products’ competitive edge.”

Tailored strategies

The government and medical service promoters have hosted explanatory meetings in recent months to facilitate expansion of domestic healthcare companies into foreign markets. They are paying particular attention to Middle East nations, which continue to increase spending on healthcare programs.

An association for medical device exporters hosted a symposium at KINTEX convention center last month in Ilsan, Gyeonggi Province, for companies targeting the Middle East. Several companies that made successful entry into the region, including Samsung Electronics, took part in the event to share their know-how and essential knowledge for business there.

Samsung focused its presentation on Saudi Arabia, one of the biggest buyers in the region.

“It’s very tough to enter Saudi Arabia,” said Kang Gi-ho, a senior manager of Samsung Electronics’ medical device division. “It’s virtually a prerequisite to earn recognition from the United States or the European Commission. Without it, Saudi Arabia hardly grants sales permission.” Kang said winning the European hallmark is relatively easier.

Cho Gi-chang, former trade agency at the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency, echoed the view, calling on domestic makers won recognition by the U.S. or European health authorities before making inroads into the Arabic country.

Jordan has been aggressive in investing its medical industry in recent years in order to make it one of the backbones of its economy. As a result, the country has more than 100 general hospitals and 7,500 smaller hospitals across the country, Cho said.

“The demand for high-end medical equipment continues to rise in Jordan because its government pushes to improve facility and services at its hospitals,” he said. “Korean companies can make big money there, if they form a partnership with creditable local partners and build trust with them upon reliable products and services.”

Ko Sung-ho, chief overseas sales director from Lutronic, a KOSDAQ-listed medical device manufacturer, said Iran is relatively friendly to Korean companies.

“Iran is at odds with the U.S. and Europe due to political reasons,” he said. “In this situation Iranian buyers tend to buy Korean products as an alternative.”

Meanwhile, the Korea Medical Devices Industrial Corp. Association took part in an international medical fair in Thailand from Sept. 12 to 14, through which its member companies signed deals valued at $4.56 million.

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