Philips’ Q1 numbers offer hope for improved imaging marketplace

April 21, 2010

For the first time in a year and a half, orders for Philips medical imaging equipment edged up in North America. It is the first tangible glimmer of hope that the great imaging recession may finally be over.

For the first time in a year and a half, orders for Philips medical imaging equipment edged up in North America. It is the first tangible glimmer of hope that the great imaging recession may finally be over.

Executives at imaging companies have been telling me for months that the installed base had aged more in the last few years than ever before. Equipment that would otherwise have been replaced was still in service, kept going by upgrades and updates. But there was a limit to how long this could continue without impacting quality of care or denying patients the clinical capability they could-and should-get. The end of the recession, therefore, was near.

This assessment rang true in Philips’ bellwether revenue statement, released earlier this week, in which the company reported declining sales in North America for the first quarter but an upswing in orders. In the North American market, quarterly sales dropped 4% but orders rose 7%. Demand for imaging systems and clinical care systems drove the rebound, according to the company. And Philips may not be alone. Executives from several vendors have told me they see increasing demand for their products.

A rising tide of demand may be lifting all boats, which is good news for an imaging community that for too long has been forced to work with what they have. But growth here in the U.S. is not as good as it could be. It certainly is much less than it would have been in the past.

Philips, a global maker and distributor, reported a 16% increase in healthcare sales during Q1 2010 in other markets. This sales growth, according to the company, was driven largely by emerging markets. Most telling is that this growth is continuing in these markets outside North America at a rate much greater than inside. Orders boomed 30% in combined emerging and mature markets outside North America, according to Philips.

In a larger sense, the pattern now taking shape reinforces a still-evolving view that the medical imaging market in the U.S. is no longer insulated from macroeconomic trends. In the past, the introduction of new imaging products had led to boomlets in the imaging marketplace. This pattern was most evident in the CT marketplace with its cyclic release of algorithmically enhanced products that leaped from four to 16 and then 64 slices, creating spikes in purchases along the way, just as it was with the steady growth during the 1990s on the heels of spiral CT.

We are now in a mature market with about as many CTs and MRs as it makes sense to operate. In the absence of products offering substantially new approaches or capabilities, U.S. sales are tagged to the need for equipment replacement. In much the same way as home owners add on a room rather than buying another house, when harsh economic conditions take hold, owners of imaging equipment upgrade what they have and delay big-ticket purchases.

This has led to a remarkable change in the world order for medical imaging equipment. Not long ago the U.S. accounted for more than half the global market for these devices. Last year executives told me this share had fallen to about 40%.

Instead of looking at this new reality negatively, we might view our glass as 40% full rather than 60% empty. Other, far less saturated, markets than our own are providing the juice that vendors need to keep investing in R&D. In the past, countries outside North America benefitted from diagnostic advances designed into equipment being directed to the U.S. Now we can gain from throughput and efficiency advances designed into equipment built for emerging markets.

Best of all, the economic bottleneck that has held back the flow of new equipment into clinical use in the U.S. is showing signs of giving way. And that can only mean good things ahead, if it continues.