Medical devices are one of the most profitable niches in Colombian health. Marisol Sanchez, president of the Camara de Proveedores
de Salud noted that "the medical device sector correlated to roughly COP 2.01 trillion (USD 1.1 billion) in 2012, with more
than 10 percent growth from last year. Ninety percent of medical devices in Colombia are imported. However, national medical
devices companies have been successful, and some of them are even exporting to Central America and other parts of South America."
To put this in perspective, the medical device market in Colombia is bigger than that of Mexico, where the pharmaceutical
industry has traditionally been stronger.
The Colombian medical device sector has a solid following despite its high price tag. Carlos Alberto Florez Gonzalez, Andean
general manager of medical device company Medtronic Latin America, said that "Colombia has well-trained doctors working in
very well-developed hospitals, and they really understand the benefits of this new technology. These doctors are also continuing
to improve their knowledge by frequently visiting hospitals and participating in different local and international congresses,
where they can learn about new developments in technology and bring this information back to Colombia. They understand the
ultimate benefits for patients."
Florez founded the Colombian affiliate of Medtronic in 2008 and has led the affiliate in rapid growth. Medtronic Colombia
initially used a distributor network to sell products, but is transitioning to a more direct presence in the country with
a brand image focus. Medtronic Colombia also runs operations in Venezuela and Mexico. "Now is the time to leverage the knowledge
that we have acquired here in Colombia in countries like Mexico to move to a more direct operation, where the market is still
under penetration and development," said Florez. "Colombia is very important and is one of Medtronic's countries targeted
for solid future growth alongside the traditionally strong markets like the United States, Japan and Western Europe." Florez
expects this growth to come from new technologies, such as the Symplicity™ therapy for renal denervation, and Melody, a transcatheter
pulmonary valve therapy that combines the use of medical devices and medicines.
Despite the availability of these devices, patient access still remains a problem in Colombia. Medtronic works with the Colombian
government to ensure patient access. "The organization is internally developing a program called Patient Access Acceleration
(PAA) which will accelerate access for patients in Colombia for various procedures. Colombia offers very high potential for
such technology because Medtronic is still penetrating most of its technologies in the country."
Rafael Arango, director general of Colombian pharma and medical device success story Grupo Amarey, uses an entire department
dedicated to researching key industry trends to determine which medical devices are best to import into Colombia. He also
sends employees to congresses worldwide to learn about the best investment opportunities. Arango pointed out that "in terms
of devices, minimally invasive surgery is the biggest trend in the industry. Invasive surgery is now smaller, less traumatic,
and recovery is much faster." He is most excited about the potential of the da Vinci robot in Colombia, produced by U.S. manufacturer
Intuitive Surgical. Arango described this device as "the 'Microsoft' of surgical equipment. Other companies are introducing
technologies compatible with Intuitive. If Amarey can manage that platform in Colombia, the Group will be riding the wave
of new laparoscopy and in general the newest minimal invasive approaches in the region."
Katherine Eissner, who became general manager Andean region of pharmaceutical and medical device company Hospira in January
2012, has a similarly positive outlook on her company's ability to supply the Colombian market. "Hospira is the strongest
injectable provider in the United States and has a heritage of antibiotics, oncology and other segments," she said. "The Colombian
population will have the opportunity to obtain best in class injectables in terms of price, quality and accessibility. Innovation
does not necessarily imply high cost; it means cost-benefit, i.e. what I am willing to pay and why. Why is the system willing
to pay, what are the benefits for the system and patients? I think that the whole sector understands that the patient ultimately
makes decisions and is starting to understand better his/her rights and making choices based on that."
LEARNING FROM HISTORY
While the future remains as a hazy cloud for the pharmaceutical industry in Colombia, the country keenly awaits the outcome
of reform that could put health care back on track to be accessible and affordable for everyone. Colombia's near-universal
health coverage may place the country among the best in the region, but leadership has come at a price. Under Minister Gaviria,
the imminent health reforms aim to reduce corruption, make drugs more affordable, and allow pharmaceutical companies to continue
on their paths to success.