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Trade and technology

American medical technologies have a good image overseas, and that’s good for american jobs

Published 24 May 2017

Imaging software paired with sophisticated diagnostic equipment offers an amazingly detailed, 3D look inside the human body. Medical innovations support well-paying jobs in every state, from sonographers to medical software developers to medical equipment repair technicians. Expanding sales worldwide is a prerequisite to sustaining growth in these American healthcare jobs.

Medical technologies marry software and hardware

Need help tracking calories? Want an avatar to do crunches with you? You have options — the number of “mHealth” apps has quadrupled in the last four years. The Android and Apple iTunes stores offer over 165,000 apps to help us develop and maintain habits for good health.

Software developers are in high demand in the health industry and they are being put to work on much more than apps for your phone. Over time, paper-based health records are being replaced with electronic systems. Imaging software paired with sophisticated diagnostic equipment now offers health care professionals 3D and 4D visualization to diagnose with higher degrees of confidence, monitor disease progression, and gauge responses to therapy. Medical applications for 3D printers is growing from surgical planning to custom-designed implantable devices like hearing aids or prosthetics that can be tailored to the patient.

It still takes a human touch

Software and hardware don’t interface alone with patients. Diagnostic medical sonographers who capture these images represent a category of health care support jobs that are growing at a healthy rate of 24 percent over the next few years. Sophisticated equipment must not only be operated by skilled technicians, they also require maintenance by medical equipment repairers who often employ specialized computer software to calibrate the machines. Some of these jobs require engineering and biomedical backgrounds.

Overall, the advanced medical technology industry directly employs more than 500,000 Americans in large and small communities across the country, paying 1.85 times the national average. The industry touches all of our lives; its indirect employment network extends to more than 1.9 million jobs dispersed in all fifty states.

U.S. advanced medical technologies lead the world

The U.S. industry leads the world in translating scientific discoveries into new medical tools and products to improve health outcomes. Americans excel at the production of medical devices, which is a good thing because Americans also consumes around 45 percent of the global demand for medical technologies according to 2014 U.S. Government Accountability Office statistics. Europe, Japan, and Canada are also large and lucrative markets for U.S. medical technologies. But they are mature markets. The double digit growth for medical technologies is in the major developing countries.

Despite the challenge of having large swaths of their populations underserved, access to healthcare in countries such as China and India is improving, especially in urban centers. Countries such as Nigeria and Kenya are building more hospitals and see value in equipping them with the highest-quality medical diagnostics and devices — a reliable machine with higher throughput of patients can save money and provide better patient outcomes over the long run. American producers have earned their favorable reputations for innovation and quality. One of the biggest barriers is that banks are reluctant to finance these capital investments by hospitals in developing countries, but regulatory hurdles are a close second.

3D knee image to implant process

Growing overseas markets keeps U.S. jobs well

Global demand for American medical products generated more than $49.2 billion in export value in 2015. But we can do even better with improved market access. Many foreign governments maintain cumbersome and duplicative systems to register and secure approval to import medical technologies. Some governments impose unnecessary requirements to locate research, development, and manufacturing overseas or fail to adequately protect American intellectual property in medical technologies.

Regulatory cooperation promoted by trade agreements is helpful to overcoming these barriers to spreading innovative, high-quality U.S. medical technologies. So the next time you refill your prescription using a pharmacy app on your phone, undergo a CT scan, or hear of someone receiving a custom, 3D-printed knee replacement, remember that access to new and growing markets overseas helps American workers in the life sciences sector stay well.



Export value derived from the U.S. Department of Commerce Census Bureau Manufacturing & International Trade Report: 2015 and represents the total export value across NAICS codes 325413, 334510 and 339112-15.

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Andrea Durkin is Principal of the trade advisory firm Sparkplug, LLC and the creator of Consensus Learning®, an innovative digital tool for teaching negotiation skills deployed in graduate classrooms, think tank simulations and government training.

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