BD's Challenge: Making Everything Old New Again
Recent legislation requiring hospitals to convert to safety devices to prevent needle-stick injuries has come as a kind of validation for Becton, Dickinson, the market leader in needles and syringes, whose efforts to develop safety products began well before customers or the government required them. Critics have charged that like all big companies with strong market share positions, BD has lagged in technology innovation, preferring to spend its time and energy defending its existing products. BD officials insist that just the opposite is true. But creating meaningful innovation is difficult in the kinds of high volume, low margin product lines that needles and syringes became over the 1980s and 1990s. For one thing, clinician input into new technology designs is rare; at the same time, the statistical data to back the importance of safety product conversions is scant. Perhaps most daunting, in a cost-constrained hospital market, the economic pay-off is still small, at least relative to other medical device innovation. Still, BD officials say, they persevered, leading the way in safety device innovation at a time when the company's interests, arguably, would have been better served defending its core line of conventional devices.
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As one of the most widely used devices in medicine, the syringe has been going through a technological metamorphosis over the past decade. Legislation in the U.S. is mandating the healthcare industry replace the inexpensive traditional syringe with a safer but more expensive technology, leading to a 215% growth rate in sales of safety syringes in the past five years. Now Europe is set to follow suit, with new safety syringe legislation handed down this past July.
Becton Dickinson & Co.'s announcement in January that it is entering the diabetes testing business laid to rest questions about its commitment to a field it has tinkered with for years. The move, however, raised new speculation about the company's ability to make inroads in a market it is entering late and which is dominated by Roche and Johnson & Johnson, who are willing to protect their lucrative shares of the monitoring business with heavy product development and marketing spending.
For the past year, hospital purchasing groups have been under a spotlight, as Senate investigators and major media investigate charges that groups have done more harm than good in favoring large product companies. One of two groups at the center of the crisis, Premier, says it is cleaning up its act-and even hired an ethicist to help-but its take on necessary reforms embraces a broad, big-picture view of hospital/GPO relationships. MedAssets is taking more of a back-to-basics approach that stresses flexibility and choice in contracting options while helping members address the escalating costs of physician preferred products. The challenge for GPOs: the pressure to reform comes at a time when competition for hospital customers is fierce, in part because the financial pressure on hospitals has never been greater.