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from the HealthPad Team
The HealthPad Team wishes you and your loved ones a very happy Festive Season and a peaceful and prosperous New Year.

2021 might not have been the year we were hoping it would be, but it has shown once again that when communities work together, great things can be achieved. May this spirit endure once again.

Thank you for your continued support throughout 2021, we look forward to another year together!
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  • MedTechs have built proficiencies to successfully create and market physical devices predominantly for the US and Western European markets
  • To remain relevant in the rapidly changing healthcare ecosystem they will need to develop advanced digital and data capabilities and increase their penetration of Asian markets, which will present challenges for most of them
  • Will companies be forced to decide whether to remain hardware manufacturers or become software enterprises, or can they look both ways and prosper?
  • Given the rate of market changes, the next 5 years represent a window of opportunity for traditional MedTechs to pivot and transform their strategies and business models
Can elephants be taught to dance?
MedTech’s strategic challenges
MedTechs are at a crossroad of manufacturing physical devices and developing software solutions. Both aim to deliver value by enhancing patient outcomes while reducing costs. Can these two scenarios co-exist, or will industry leaders be forced to choose one or the other?
For decades, many companies have displayed a deep-rooted reluctance to transform their business models and adopt digitalization strategies and have used M&A activity to become bigger. This suggests that a significant proportion of MedTech leaders are likely to manage increased competition and changing healthcare ecosystems by accelerating M&A activities, which are familiar to them and require no significant change. However, such activities alone will not future-proof companies. Over the next five years, “informed” MedTechs will benefit by shifting away from their current business models that depend on developing and selling physical products predominantly to hospitals in the US and Western Europe and move toward providing patient-centric software solutions as partners in dynamic, connected international healthcare ecosystems.
M&A activity to enhance scale

For decades, M&A activities have helped MedTechs to acquire mature assets to tuck into their existing sales and distribution channels. More than anything, this has assisted them to increase their scale, while optimising their portfolios, reducing competition, and improving profits. Over the past decade, when Western markets became more uncertain, monetary policy tightened, technologies advanced, and global economic growth slowed, MedTechs responded by exploiting the fall in the cost of capital to increase their M&A activities with the main purpose of increasing their scale: bigger was generally perceived by industry leaders to be better.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, 2020 was expected to be a strong year for MedTech’s M&A. However, the disruptive impact of the coronavirus outbreak slowed the industry’s M&A performance, and between July 2019 and June 2020, M&A expenditures plunged by 60% compared to the previous 12-month period. Activity returned in Q3, 2020, and today, although high asset valuations and increasing cost of capital have impacted M&A transactions and re-focused attention on organic growth, there are signs that a M&A buyer’s market is developing, but with a difference.
The difference is a significant number of M&A transactions do not appear to be focussed entirely on acquiring scale. While there are still some advantages to increasing scale, there are disadvantages, which include having to integrate and service more customers, more employees, and more institutional investors, and this often contributes to strategic rigidities.

The demise of scale

The significance of scale was first elaborated in 1937 by Nobel economics laureate Ronald Coase in his seminal paper, The Nature of the Firm, and ~50 years later, repeated by Michael Porter in his book, Competitive Advantage. Both Coase and Porter suggested that scale gained from reducing the ratio of overhead to production would increase the power of firms in markets. In 2013, Rita McGrath challenged this thesis in, The End of Competitive Advantage, by suggesting that bigger was not necessarily better. According to McGrath, in an increasingly high-tech environment, more important than size, is whether enterprises have access to technical capabilities, which can drive top-line growth in dynamic market settings.

Recapitalized MedTech’s M&A firepower
According to a 2020 report on the state of the MedTech industry, published by EY, a consulting firm, between July 2019 and June 2020, MedTechs took advantage of low interest rates, and financing levels more than doubled to a record US$57.1bn compared to the previous 12 months; with >40% resulting from debt financing. Thus, as we emerge from restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a lot of liquidity in the market and larger MedTechs have significant M&A firepower. Will they use this to become bigger, or will they use their capital to make strategic investments in new technologies and to penetrate large rapidly growing Asian markets?
M&A driving a shift to digital health

In H1,2021, the MedTech sector recorded a total of 33 M&A deals, up from 25 in the whole of 2020. There is some evidence to suggest that some companies in the sector are using their renewed M&A firepower to acquire high growth digital and AI opportunities that can be integrated into their existing product offerings to provide access to new revenue streams and help companies pivot away from being solely dependent upon manufacturing physical devices. We briefly describe four such deals.
In January 2020, as the first COVID-19 case was reported in the US, Boston Scientific paid US$0.925bn for Preventice, a developer of mobile health solutions and remote monitoring services, which connect patients and caregivers. Its digitally enabled service has the potential to reduce healthcare costs and improve patient outcomes. In February 2020,  Medtronic, acquired, for an undisclosed sum, Digital Surgery, a London-based privately-held pioneer in surgical AI, data and analytics. The acquisition is expected to accelerate Medtronic’s plans to incorporate AI and data into its laparoscopic and robotic-assisted surgery platforms. In December 2020 Philips acquired BioTelemetry for US$2.8bn. BioTelemetry is a US-based provider of remote cardiac diagnostics and monitoring, with offerings in wearable heart monitors and AI-based data analytics and services. The deal provides Philips with the capability to expand its remote monitoring business outside of hospitals and into lower cost day-care settings and patients’ homes. One of the largest healthcare deals of 2020 was Teladoc’s US$18.5bn acquisition of Livongo, a remote patient monitoring company, founded in 2014, to build a cloud-based diabetes management programme, linking a person’s glucose monitor to personalized coaching to help control blood sugar levels. In 2019, just one year before Teladoc’s acquisition, Livongo IPO’d at a valuation of US$355m, and expanded its products and services to cover high blood pressure and behavioural health with an ultimate goal of leveraging digital medicine to address “the health of the whole person”. 
These four acquisitions are from market segments, which run parallel to traditional medical devices and are often perceived by some MedTech executives to be competitors destined to be controlled by giant tech companies such as Apple, Huawei, and Samsung. However, given the rate at which technology is developing, the speed at which MedTech and pharma are converging, and the renewed liquidity in the market, it might be more efficacious for MedTechs to view such specialised digital health companies as partners rather than competitors.
Technologies helping MedTechs to develop actionable solutions

Today, many new biomedical technologies are being developed and benefit from continuous miniaturization, enhanced battery life, cost reductions and increasing data storage capacity. One such technology is photoplethysmography (PPG), a non-invasive, uncomplicated, and inexpensive optical measurement method that employs a light source and a photodetector to calculate the volumetric variations of blood circulation. PPG is employed in smartphones and wearables that are used by billions of people worldwide. There is a large and growing global research endeavour to develop more effective and sophisticated PPG algorithms that could be attached to traditional, non-active medical devices and implants to provide accurate and reliable real time monitoring of a wide range of conditions.
Outside of specific health monitoring technologies, few MedTechs collect, store, and analyse data generated by their existing traditional devices and implants, and even fewer use such data to facilitate real time, monitoring of conditions. However, some companies are beginning to transform their dumb devices into intelligent ones to gain access to new revenue streams. For example Zimmer-Biomet’s smart” knee, utilizes a biosensor [an analytical device that uses natural biological materials to detect and monitor virtually any activity or substance] to generate self-reports on patient activity, recovery, and treatment failures, without the need for physician intervention and dependence upon patient compliance. 
According to Roger Kornberg, Professor of Structural Biology at Stanford University and Nobel Laureate for Chemistry, “the excitement of biosensors pertains to their microscopic size and the ease with which they can transmit wirelessly in real time information about responses to treatment from an implantable device within the body”. [See video below].
A fast-growing field of AI is tiny machine learning (TinyML), which has the capability to perform on-device, real time, sensor data analytics at extremely low power, typically in the mW [one thousandth of a watt] range and below. The technology is expected to make always-on use-cases economically viable and accelerate the transformation of dumb devices and implants into smart ones.

Changing traditional R&D models
In their search for innovative healthcare solutions, MedTechs might consider increasing their R&D spend and reorganizing their R&D function. MedTech’s R&D spend, as a percentage of revenues, has slowed compared to levels the industry recorded prior to the 2007 financial crash. Overall, the industry tends to allocate more of its capital to share buybacks and investor dividends than to R&D. This strategy may please shareholders in the short term, but it suggests some uncertainty among industry leaders about how to invest for growth in the longer term and could have a medium- to long-term potential downside. 
Further, a significant percentage of R&D spend goes on tweaking existing products rather than creating new ones. Given that the future of the industry is dependent upon innovation, it seems reasonable to suggest that, as competition increases and markets tighten, MedTechs will need to consider increasing their R&D resources and capabilities to develop innovative technologies that provide improved actionable solutions across entire patient journeys.

Unlocking value from R&D innovations might require a different culture and new operating models to the ones that tend to prevail today. Instead of lengthy R&D cycles fixed on the launch of a physical product, it could be more beneficial to focus on developing minimum-viable patient-centric solutions, which research teams can deploy early, test, learn from and enhance. Moreover, R&D strategy sessions might benefit by including a mandatory question: “In the near- to medium-term, are there any evolving technologies likely to disrupt a specific market segment important to our company?”.

The potential of innovative technologies to disrupt markets
To illustrate the significance of this question, consider traumatic brain injury (TBI), which each year affects ~69m individuals worldwide. There is no cure for the condition, and the cornerstone of its management is to monitor intracranial pressure (ICP). [Pressures >15 millimetres of mercury (mm Hg) are considered abnormal, and ICP >20 mm Hg is deemed pathological]. An ICP monitor is expected to be easy to use, accurate, reliable, reproducible, inexpensive and should not be associated with either infection or haemorrhagic complications. Currently, the gold-standard is to drill a small burr hole in the skull, insert a catheter and place it in a cavity [ventricle] in the brain, which is filled with cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). Such an invasive intraventricular catheter system is accurate and reliable, but it is also a health-resource-intensive modality, which runs a risk of haemorrhage and infection. Recent advances in PPG and other technologies have accelerated research developing non-invasive techniques to continuously measure and monitor ICP, which in the medium-term, could replace the gold standard and avoid drilling a hole in a traumatised patient’s skull.   
Pros and cons of the COVID-19 crisis

One beneficial outcome for MedTechs of the COVID-19 crisis has been the change in regulatory norms, which favour innovation. In the US, the FDA reduced barriers to market entry for new devices by increasing its emergency use authorization (EUA), which fast-tracks the availability of medical devices. Also, at the onset of the pandemic, the EU deferred for one year the implementation of its Medical Device Regulation (MDR), which governs the production and distribution of medical devices in Europe. In mid 2021, when governments began removing the outstanding legal restrictions imposed to reduce the impact of the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, some MedTechs, which had invested in remote communication strategies, chose to build on the changes they had made and invest further in digitalization AI strategies, while many others reverted to their labour-intensive supply channels. According to a June 2021 Boston Consulting Group (BCG) study, “On average, MedTech companies are still spending two to three times more on selling, general, and administrative (SG&A) expenses (as a percent of the costs of goods sold) than the typical technology or industrial company”.
A potential disadvantage for MedTechs of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it can lead to an excessive focus on short-term challenges and put off addressing longer-term strategic threats.
MedTech executives have never had it so good

Why are some companies reluctant to transform their strategies and business models?

We suggest that a deep-rooted resistance to change results from MedTechs “never having it so good” over a long period. Indeed, for several decades before the global economic crisis in 2007 and 2008, the medical device market was buoyed by limited competition, benign reimbursement policies, aging populations, and a slower pace of technological change compared to today. These factors promoted double-digit growth rates, investor confidence, and solid valuations. This fostered a sense of security among C suites and encouraged “business as usual” agendas, which tended to focus on sharpening legacy products, legacy business models, legacy forms of market access and pricing and legacy capabilities.
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Who should lead MedTech?

The 2007-8 financial crisis only inflicted a short-lived blow to the industry and most companies bounced back relatively quickly. Throughout the decade that followed, MedTechs maintained solid financial performance, steady growth, investor confidence and robust valuations. Many enterprises across the industry ended 2019 in a strong position, with some trading at 52-week highs and the industry overall growing revenues at ~6%.
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic threw some segments of the industry off course by a substantial reduction in elective care. However, by 2H 2021, most MedTechs had recovered, albeit their annual growth in revenues did not recapture the heights of the early years of the 21st century.
MedTechs became like elephants

It seems reasonable to suggest that decades of commercial success shaped the mindsets of industry leaders and resulted in MedTechs becoming like elephants. In 1990, James Belasco published, Teaching the Elephant to Dance, in which he likened organizations to elephants. The book describes how trainers shackled young elephants to a stake securely embedded in the ground so that they could not move away despite their efforts. By the time the elephants became fully grown and had the strength to pull the stakes out of the ground, they were so conditioned they did not move and remained in position even though most were no longer tethered to the stakes. The author uses this analogy to warn how companies can become stuck in obsolete working practices, which are obstacles to their future commercial success.

In 1993, IBM, the world’s largest manufacturer of mainframe computers, had become “an elephant” continuing to produce hardware appliances when the industry was embracing software solutions. IBM, which had posted a US$8bn loss, appointed Lou Gerstner, an executive from outside the computer industry, to turn the company around. Nine years later, IBM had become one of the world's most admired companies. In a book published in 2002, entitled, Who Says Elephants Can't Dance?, Gerstner described how he successfully changed IBM from a maker of hardware to a service orientated company.
A 5-year window of opportunity
A doubt as to whether many traditional MedTechs can be taught to dance was sewn in a 2021 BCG study cited above, which suggested that enterprises “do not yet have the capabilities in place to develop and implement a next-generation, omnichannel commercial model”. Ten years from now, the MedTech market is projected to be significantly different to what it is today, and what it has been for the past four decades. However, it seems reasonable to assume that because of its size and growth rate, [~US$0.5tn, growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of ~6% and projected to reach US$0.75tn by 2030], many industry leaders will not feel any pressing need to transform their strategies and business models in the short-term.

However, with a rapidly changing healthcare ecosystem, it seems reasonable to suggests that, to remain relevant after 2030, MedTechs will need to use the next five years as a window of opportunity to prepare solutions that enable them to focus on entire patient treatment pathways, create best-in-class distributive services, and develop digital marketing and sales capabilities that help to expand their influence beyond selling hardware. This will require targeting the “right” market segments, developing the “right” solutions, funding in the “right” R&D, creating the “right” playbooks; and recruiting, retaining, and developing the “right” people with the “right” capabilities.

From restricted staged events to real time distribution

Companies are rich reservoirs of clinical data and expertise, but the data tend to be kept in silos and distributed intermittently to a limited number of clinicians and providers at “staged” events. Digital technologies can unlock these assets and facilitate real time, online marketing, self-service portals, and virtual engagements; all of which can provide physicians and providers with unprecedented access to knowhow that can help improve the quality of care and reduce costs. However, shifting to such a distributed care model to drive profitability requires developing a digital, remote, marketing and sales force, which is supported by data analytics, virtual demonstrations, automated call reporting, and AI-supported coaching tools.
The reduction of obstacles to data rich digital distributed care strategies

While distributed computing and communications systems have significantly enhanced a wide range of commercial organizations, they have yet to take root in MedTech settings, despite data sharing being critical in modern clinical practice and medical research. A challenge for MedTechs is to engage in data sharing that reconciles individual privacy and data utility. This will entail universally agreed AI and machine learning practices. Although there are sophisticated technologies that can help with this, MedTech’s management and information systems’ personnel may not be prepared to effectively reconcile these competing interests and push for universal data standards. According to a US National Institute of Health report, “The lack of technical understanding, the lack of direct experience with these new tools, the lack of confidence in their management, the lack of a peer group of successful adopters (except for a few academic medical organizations), and uncertainties about reasonable risks and expectations all leave conservative organizational managers hesitant to make decisions”. 
While the mindsets of some industry leaders appear to be obstacles to change, other obstacles to transformative business models have been reduced. For instance, privacy is now less of an obstacle for data-rich strategies than it once was. Increasingly, patients show a willingness for their clinical and personal data to be used anonymously in the interest of improving healthcare. Further, regulators’ attitudes towards data are changing.  In September 2021 the FDA published its AI enabled devices that are marketed in the US, which embrace the full scale of approvals from 510(k) de Novo authorizations to Premarket (PMA) approvals. The FDA’s initiative comes at a time of continued growth in AI enhanced digital offerings that contribute to a variety of clinical spheres, and the increasing number of companies seeking to enter this space. There are ~130 algorithms approved for clinical use in the US and Europe.
A recent report from Frost & Sullivan, a US market research company, suggests that although in the near-term, traditional medical devices will continue to make up the bulk of the market, after 2024, they are expected to grow at only a CAGR of ~2%. By contrast, digitally enhanced medical devices, and algorithms, which facilitate managing patients remotely and non-intrusively, are expected to grow at a CAGR >14% and reach US$172bn by 2024.

The shift to low-cost settings

Over the next five years, as technology advances, populations age, healthcare costs escalate, patient expectations continue to rise, and markets tighten, we can expect the shift away from hospitals to outpatient settings and other lower-cost venues to accelerate. This move to a distributed care model is a headwind for traditional MedTechs, whose principal focus is provider systems rather than patients, and a tailwind for new players entering the market unencumbered by legacy supply chains, costs, and infrastructures. According to an EY 2020 study, ~70% of start-ups in the diagnostics segment have products applicable to the point-of-care setting.
Corporate venture funds

To help traditional MedTechs dance leaders of medium sized, well capitalized enterprises might consider copying the world’s largest MedTechs and create corporate venture capital (CVC) funds to invest in tech-savvy start-ups. While 7 of the top 10 MedTechs by sales have venture arms, many company leaders shy away from investing in early-stage, unproven technologies. However, CVC funds offer traditional corporates access to innovations and scarce science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) skills, which are necessary to capture and analyse data, deliver enhanced care, and drive biomedical R&D with the potential to improve patient outcomes and lower costs.
The latest giant MedTech to launch a CVC fund is Intuitive Surgical. In Q4 2020, the company started disbursing capital from its initial US$100m venture fund to start-ups developing digital tools and precision diagnostics, with an emphasis on minimally invasive care. Intuitive is the world’s largest manufacturer of robotic surgical systems for minimally invasive surgery. Since its lead offering, the da Vinci Surgical System, received FDA approval in 2000, it has been used by surgeons in all 50 US states, ~67 countries worldwide and has performed >8.5m procedures.

In the first three quarters of 2020, CVCs participated in investment rounds worth US$1.2bn, which amounted to >25% of the total venture funding the sector raised. The lion’s share went to products and solutions that address digital therapies, telehealth, and treatments for low-cost settings. Such technologies are positioned to continue receiving significant funding in 2022 and beyond. A 2021 study by Deloitte, a consulting firm, suggests that MedTech start-ups, unencumbered by legacy products and practices have capabilities, which stretch beyond traditional devices that support episodic care, and focus on distributed solutions, which address the full patient journey: from diagnosis to rehabilitation. The study also maintains that technologies employed by these enterprises are getting smarter, with ~70% of them including digital AI capabilities.
Further, MedTechs with CVC arms might consider allowing their digital business functions to operate within a different organizational framework, giving them greater decision-making authority and enhanced freedoms.

Asia Pacific MedTech markets

Before closing let us briefly draw attention to the increasing significance of the emerging Asia Pacific MedTech markets. For the past 4 decades, industry leaders were not obliged to seriously consider penetrating markets outside the US and Western Europe because ~70% of global MedTech revenues came from the US and Western Europe. However, as Western markets tighten, and become increasingly competitive, attention is moving East towards Asia.

Over two decades ago, a handful of giant MedTechs began investing in Asia, but most companies in the sector preferred not to risk navigating such unfamiliar healthcare territories. An early investor in the region was Medtronic, which, since ~2000, has achieved significant growth from a multi-faceted strategy that included exporting innovative products from the US to China, establishing R&D facilities in China to design products specifically for the needs of the Chinese market, crafting partnerships with Beijing to educate patients in under-served therapeutic areas, and acquiring domestic Chinese MedTech companies.

Because of the current political stand-off between the two countries, such a China strategy is not so feasible as it has been over the past two decades. However, it is worth bearing in mind that Asia is comprised of 48 countries with a combined population of ~5bn, which is projected to reach 8.5bn by 2030, [~60% of the world’s population], with 1 in 4 people >60. In 2020, ~2bn Asians were members of the middle class, and by 2030, this demographic is projected to grow to ~3.5bn. Moreover, health insurance coverage in the region is expanding. By contrast, the middle classes in the US and Western Europe are smaller and growing at lower rates. According to the Pew Research Center in 2018, ~52% of the 258m US adults (>18 years) was considered middle class. The dynamics of the Asian middle class is driving a large and rapidly growing Asian MedTech market, which is on the cusp of eclipsing Europe to become the world’s second largest regional market, growing at a CAGR of ~9%.

Further, the region has become an important source of technological innovation. For example, in 2020, its digital health market was valued at ~US$20bn and projected to grow at a CAGR of ~21% until 2027, when its value is expected to be ~US$80bn. Despite its complexities and unfamiliarity, Asia represents a substantial opportunity for MedTechs. However, for Western enterprises to succeed in Asian markets they will require in depth local knowhow, long term commitments, agility, innovation, and robust strategies that can prosper under fiercely competitive conditions.  


MedTechs have built capabilities to develop, launch, market and sell physical devices. With some notable exceptions, few have the capabilities necessary to drive significant growth from digitalization and data strategies. Sharpening traditional commercial procedures and practices alone is unlikely to significantly increase growth, especially when competitors and new entrants have business models that are more effective, promote better patient outcomes and provide greater value to healthcare systems.  

MedTechs could play a significant role in the transformation of healthcare, but not without risks and some significant changes to the way they operate. Over the next five years, as competitive pressures increase, industry leaders have a window of opportunity to pivot. Here are six strategic questions that might help in this regard:
  1. Should we support significant investments in digitalization, and data analytics to improve our supply chains and R&D endeavours to convert dumb devices and implants into smart ones?
  2. What are the top three actionable innovations that we can develop in the near-term to provide access to new revenue streams?
  3. What are the top three technologies likely to disrupt our product offerings in the near- to medium-term and what should we do about them?
  4. Can we remain a hardware manufacturer while developing significant software solutions that embrace entire patient journeys or must we choose between manufacturing and software?
  5. How do we create valuable solutions that enhance patient journeys from data?
  6. How are global markets changing in ways that are not reflected in our company’s discussions?
The answers to these questions will help to shape a corporation’s strategy, and inform M&A and CVC activities, “must have” capabilities, desired partnerships, R&D spend and agendas, and the type of business models to pursue. All critical for teaching elephants to dance.
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Because of recent concerns raised by the UK’s Health Security Agency (UKHSA),colleagues suggested that we republish a Commentary entitled, “Slowing the steep rise in antimicrobial resistance”, which features Nobel Laureate Roger Kornberg. Since it was first published it has received >15,000 openings. UKHSA warned of a “hidden pandemic” this winter because last year, in the UK, 1 in 5 infections were resistant to antibiotic. The organization feared that as COVID-19 restrictions are lifted social mixing is likely to spread infections some of which will be resistant to antibiotics.
  • Currently 700,000 people die each year from Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) and this could rise to 10 milion by 2050
  • AMR could make routine surgeries and childbirth as dangerous and lethal as in the pre-antibiotic era killing millions and costing trillions worldwide
  • Doctors inappropriately prescribing antibiotics for minor aliments shorten the useful life of antibiotics threatening modern medicine as there is an antibiotic pipeline deficiency
  • 90% of GPs feel pressured by patients to prescribe antibiotics
  • 70% of GPs are unsure whether sore throat and respiratory infections are viral or bacterial resulting in 50% of sore throats receiving antibiotics
  • Clinical diagnosis leads to 50% of patients with a sore throat being prescribed antibiotics without having Group A Streptococcal infection
  • 30% of patients with pharyngitis will not be treated but will be infected with Group A Streptococci
  • 24% of doctors say they lack easy-to-use diagnostic tools
  • 10m prescriptions for antibiotics are handed out in England each year to patients who do not need them
  • A Nobel Laureate has developed a new technology to provide rapid, accurate, cost-effective diagnosis of bacterial sore throat resulting in informed prescribing and reducing unnecessary antibiotic usage
Slowing the steep rise of antimicrobial resistance
Should we listen when a professor of medicine and a Nobel Laureate says that the technology already exists to develop a cheap hand held device, which can rapidly and accurately diagnose a bacterial sore throat?  
Without such a device to determine whether minor ailments require antibiotics, doctors will continue to prescribe them, and thereby contribute to the steep rise in Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR). In 2016 the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), the UK government's NHS watchdog, reported that as many as 10m prescriptions for antibiotics are handed out in England every year to patients who do not need them. According to a 2016 report on AMR, by 2050 a staggering, “10m people will die from AMR each year . . . . The world needs rapid diagnostics to improve our use of antibiotics,” says the report.

Sore throat
Acute throat infections are among the most common infectious diseases presented to primary healthcare and A&E departments and are frequently misdiagnosed. They are responsible for 2 to 4% of all primary care visits. Viruses cause 85% to 95% of throat infections in adults and children younger than 5. For those aged 5 to 15, viruses cause about 70% of throat infections, with the other 30% due to bacterial infections, mostly group A β-hemolytic streptococcus (GAS), which can cause 0.5m deaths a year. There are challenges in diagnosing GAS because its signs and symptoms are often indistinguishable from viral and other causes of sore throat.
If a doctor intends to treat suspected GAS pharyngitis, it is generally recommended that laboratory confirmation of the presence of GAS be sought to limit unnecessary antibiotic prescription. The gold standard laboratory investigation is of a bacterial culture of a throat swab. However, this is expensive, and there is a relatively long lag time between the collection of the specimen and final microbiological diagnosis: so doctors tend not to it. 
Rapid antigen diagnostic tests (RADTs) are an alternative to the gold standard laboratory test for GAS. However, widespread use of RADTs has been hindered by low sensitivity for most commonly used RADTs (immunoassays). Reviews of RADTs performance have identified significant variability in the diagnostic accuracy, especially sensitivity, between different test methodologies.

Urgent need for rapid and accurate diagnostic test
A principal recommendation of a 2016 report on AMR is to ban doctors from prescribing antibiotics until they have carried out rapid tests to prove the infection is bacterial. The report also stresses that doctors need urgent help to temporise their use of antibiotics if AMR is to be reduced.

Notwithstanding, the AMR challenge is bigger than doctors overprescribing antibiotics. Farmers feed antibiotics to livestock and poultry, and spray them on crops to make our food supply ‘safer’. We dump antibiotics in rivers, and even paint them on the hulls of boats to prevent the build up of barnacles. However, it seems reasonable to suggest that successfully reducing doctors’ over prescribing antibiotics would represent a significant contribution to denting the burden of AMR. To do this, “We need a step change in the technology available . . . Governments of the richest countries should mandate now that, by 2020, all antibiotic prescriptions will need to be informed by up to date surveillance and a rapid diagnostic test,” urges the AMR report.
The technological ‘step change’, which the report says is essential, has already been achieved, says Roger Kornberg, Professor of Medicine at Stanford University and Nobel Laureate for Chemistry.Advanced biosensor technology enables virtually instantaneous, extraordinarily sensitive, electronic detection of almost any biomarker (protein, nucleic acid, small molecule, etc.). With relatively modest resources it would only be a matter of months to develop a simple, affordable handheld device, which not only would tell you immediately and accurately whether a sore throat requires antibiotics or not, but would also tell you which antibiotics you require, and for how long you should take them,” says Kornberg. See videos below in which Kornberg describes how tried and tested biosensor technology could facilitate rapid and accurate diagnosis of a sore throat.

Click to watch a cluster of videos by Professor Kornberg on Antimicrobial resistance and biosensor technology
Serious and growing threat
Each year, millions of people throughout the developed world present themselves to their doctors with minor ailments, such as a sore throat. 97% of these patients demand antibiotics although 90% of their ailments are viral and therefore do not require antibiotics. 90% of doctors, who do not have the means to rapidly and accurately determine whether a minor ailment requires antibiotics, feel pressured by patients to prescribe them.
A 2014 study of four million NHS patients from 537 GP practices in England found that more than 50% of those presenting with a minor ailment were prescribed antibiotics, despite warnings that the medication will not help, but increases their risk of developing resistance. The study, by scientists at Public Health England and University College London, published in the Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, found that antibiotic prescriptions for minor ailments increased by some 40% between 1999 and 2011. 70% of GPs surveyed said they prescribed antibiotics because they were unsure whether patients had viral or bacterial infections, and 24% of GPs said it was because of a lack of an easy-to-use, rapid and accurate diagnostic device.
Superbugs will kill millions and cost trillions
Concerned about the rising levels of drug resistance whereby microbes evolve to become immune to known drugs, in 2014 the UK Government, in collaboration with the Wellcome Trust, commissioned a review of the large and growing global burden of AMR. Jim O’Neill, a former Goldman Sachs chief economist who coined the phrase “BRICS”, was appointed to lead the endeavour and propose actions to tackle AMR. In 2015 O’Neill was elevated to the House of Lords, and appointed Secretary to the UK government’s Treasury.

During the 18 months it took O’Neill to complete his final report, one million people worldwide died from AMR. At least 25,000 people die each year in Europe from AMR. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 2m people in the US become infected with resistant bacteria every year, and at least 23,000 of them die. According to O’Neill, “If we don't do something about antibiotic resistance, we will be heading towards a world with no-antibiotic treatments for those who need them.”
A threat to modern medicine
O’Neill’s findings are congruent with warnings from the World Health Organization (WHO), which suggests AMR is a crisis worse than the Aids epidemic – which has caused some 25m deaths worldwide – and threatens to turn the clock back on modern medicine. The misuse of antibiotics has created, “A problem so serious that it threatens the achievements of modern medicine. A post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries can kill, far from being an apocalyptic fantasy, is instead a very real possibility for the 21st century,” says a 2014 WHO report. “Superbugs risk making routine surgery potentially lethal, killing millions and costing the world economy US$100 trillion a year by the middle of the century,” says O’Neill.
These dire warnings are supported by a case study of AMR published in Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy in 2016, which suggests that we might be closer to a "post-antibiotic era" than we think. A particular group of bacteria (Gram-negative) have become increasingly resistant to currently available antimicrobial drugs. Colistin is one of the only antibiotics that still show some effectiveness against such infections, but the study suggests that even Colistin may no longer be effective.
AMR is widely recognized as a serious and growing worldwide threat to human health. New forms of AMR continue to arise and spread, leaving doctors with few weapons to bring potentially life-threatening infections under control. The injudicious use of antimicrobials, and the proliferation of AMR pathogens are compounded by the inability to rapidly and accurately diagnose minor ailments such as sore throats. Professor Kornberg has an answer.
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