Mumbai: GE Healthcare’s Indian arm, a joint venture between Wipro Ltd and General Electric Co., plans to bring a range of high-end technology products into the domestic market at a fraction of their global costs.

Mobile medicine: Dr S. S. Ramesh partnered with GE to take health care to the masses.

Its development centre in Bangalore has been working on digital X-rays and computed tomography devices—a diagnostic equipment that is able to visually separate structures at different depths within the body.

These, and products including portable ultrasounds, maternal-infant care and medical equipment components are also under development—most of them targeted at rural dwellers.

“We believe that the rural market in India has a lot of potential and is still largely untapped," says V. Raja, president, India, GE Healthcare.

The digital X-ray—a new technology that has very low radiation risks, and other advantages such as the immediate generation of images, and high-quality imaging compared with the conventional X-ray that relies on film—is one of the products that GE Healthcare has taken up as a priority for development in India. Each one costs more than Rs1 crore, and fewer than 10 hospitals across India have it. Most hospitals in the country still use old X-ray technology, known as “two-pulse".

“We hope to use the core technology and then build around it in a way that will help to drastically reduce cost. This could mean fabricating or sourcing a lot of the components locally," says Raja.

In the process, the company hopes to bring down the cost of the product to less than Rs50 lakh. The next best kind of X-ray equipment, the high frequency X-ray, could cost Rs30 lakh—less than one-third of the cost now.

Similarly, the company hopes to develop other high-end technology for the rural market, many out of reach for most rural healthcare set-ups partly due to cost and partly due to the infrastructure requirements.

“When we develop products for rural India, we try and address three parameters—cost, mobility and the ability to run on limited power," says Raja.

The rural focus is significant. Not just from GE Healthcare’s point of view, but from the potential it holds to transform health-care delivery in the hinterland. Statistics reveal a gaping urban-rural divide in health-care access with resources highly skewed towards urban India. About 88% of towns have a health-care facility, compared with 24% in rural areas—90% of which are manned by sole practitioners.

Only 20% of the country’s total hospital beds are in rural areas, serving 70% of the population. A person in a village needs to travel more than 2km to reach the first health post to get a paracetamol tablet, more than 6km for a blood test and nearly 20km for hospital care.

Equipment built to cater to the rural population can help bridge that divide. S. S. Ramesh, a leading Bangalore-based cardiologist who has used some of the technologies, developed by GE Healthcare, says the impact of bringing technology to rural India has been “very good".

Initially, when he wanted to take health care to the poor, he found setting up camps in rural India could be limiting; and people who really needed medical attention rarely showed up at his hospital in Bangalore.

A few months ago, Ramesh partnered with GE Healthcare to combine the two concepts. Now, the so-called Cathlab on Wheels cruises around five districts near Bangalore to bring services to rural dwellers, performing routine examinations as well as the more complex angiographies. An angiography is a complex diagnostic procedure used to detect the extent of heart disease.

The launch of the mobile unit has more than doubled the number of patients from rural areas, Dr Ramesh says. Unlike earlier, patients now have to travel to the city only if they need to undergo a surgical procedure. Because of the reduction in the cost by more than 50%, a decrease in time away from home, and the comfort of having the diagnostic procedure closer, patient enrolments have gone up significantly.

Keeping the potential of the rural market as a focus, GE Healthcare started an initiative called ‘In India, for India’, through which it has developed unique products such as the MAC 400, a recently launched electrocardiograph (ECG) that has been designed, developed and manufactured in India.

The company realized the need for an India-centric approach right from the inception since advanced technology was ill affordable for most health-care set-ups. The equipment had to be imported and the duty amount was extremely high—sometimes 100% of the value of the product— making it very expensive.

Eventually, GE Healthcare found a way to bridge this gap by manufacturing products locally with technology support from its Japan unit. The move helped reduce costs by about 40% and made technology available to a larger number of clinicians and patients. Over time, the company improved and started making more components locally, bringing costs further down. Today, almost 70% of the components used for equipment sold in India are made within the country.

GE has a 51% stake in the company, while Wipro has 49%; the company’s marketing unit is called Wipro GE Healthcare.

“We use India as a development hub for many other markets as well," Raja says. The company currently has more than 1,000 engineers and scientists compared with 200 in 2000 when it set up its research centre.