VIVA! Communications’ Principal, Kirsten Bruce caught up with CEO of the Medical Technology Association of Australia (MTAA), Ian Burgess, in Sydney this week to discuss the pivotal role played by the MedTech industry throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the various challenges encountered, and key learnings poised to shape the industry’s future.

Watch the interview below.

Over the past four months, MedTech has served at the frontline of COVID-19, working rigorously to ensure continuous supply of equipment and devices designed to diagnose, treat and support Australians throughout the pandemic. Working hand-in-hand with the Federal Government, the industry has secured testing kits, PPE, ventilators and other essential Intensive Care Unit (ICU) equipment.

“During the pandemic, we’ve seen companies that would normally be fierce competitors, unite, collaborate and sit around the virtual table together. They’ve exchanged commercially sensitive information, within an ACCC exemption, all for the purpose of ensuring Australia was best placed to meet the challenge,” said Mr Burgess.

In fact, the Australian MedTech industry’s efforts have set a globally recognised benchmark for successful collaboration in response to the profuse challenges faced during COVID-19, coined the“Australian Industry-led Collaborative Model”.

Broadly speaking, the Australian MedTech industry has faced the following three major challenges over the past four months – pressure on supply chains, elective surgery restrictions, and clinical trial delays.

“We were successful in terms of quantifying existing supplies, securing additional supply though global supply chains, securing opportunities to ramp up local production, and in identifying new manufacturing opportunities locally, which was, in itself, a key challenge,” Mr Burgess said.

The COVID-19 imposed restrictions on elective surgery have weighed heavily on the Australian MedTech industry, severely reducing the demand for MedTech equipment and devices, and creating a backlog of 400,000 cancelled operations. 

“While some companies were gearing up in terms of ventilators, testing kits and other required equipment, the industry was hit by an extreme reduction in demand, and therefore, extreme reductions in revenue.

“Some companies that focus heavily on elective surgery received revenue cuts of approximately 50 per cent or more, and in some cases, even as high as 90 per cent. This was all happening at a time of higher freight costs, which in some cases, have increased by as much as 500 to 800 per cent,” said Mr Burgess.

April 27, 2020 marked the first phase of Australia’s reintroduction to elective surgery. As part of its industry-led collaborative model, MTAA has been engaging with private hospitals and suppliers over the past three months to ensure sufficient PPE supply, with public hospitals being guaranteed access to national stockpiles.

“There is currently sufficient stock, but the supply/demand balance is potentially fragile, and any substantial increase in the infection rate, or even an isolated breakout of COVID-19 within a hospital, will put stress on our supply of PPE,” Mr Burgess said.

COVID-19 has further substantially impacted the clinical trials sector, with many trials being delayed or placed on hold. MTAA has been collaborating with AusBiotech and Medicines Australia as part of an ongoing Research and Development TaskForce (RDTF), to identify how best to promote and support the Australian clinical trials sector.

In March 2020, the RDTF issued a Joint Position Statement on measures designed to assist the local clinical trials sector to weather the COVID-19 crisis. The position statement provided guidance on how and why clinical trial sites should remain open throughout the pandemic.

“Fortunately, with our success in Australia in squashing the curve and getting a better outcome, faster, the impact on the clinical trials sector is not as bad as what was originally thought,” said Mr Burgess.

MedTech companies affected by COVID-19 were swift to adapt their business operations to the new environment. They introduced working from home measures, moved to virtual meetings and implemented split shifts – a particularly crucial measure for companies with manufacturing or warehouse facilities.

“These types of operational changes increased costs because they are inherently less efficient from a process point of view,” Mr Burgess said.

In addition, limitations placed on hospital entry has spearheaded an adjustment to the way in which MedTech support is being offered to healthcare workers.

“Company representatives can offer extensive support to clinicians, nurses and surgeons, pre-operation, during an operation, and post-operation. Australian MedTech companies have had to examine how they maintain that essential support within the COVID-19 environment.

“In some cases, companies have been able to provide some of that support remotely. A company representative may have still been within the hospital, but not actually in the operating theatre, providing remote support through an iPad,” said Mr Burgess.

The MedTech sector is founded on innovation, heralded by the MTAA’s mission – ‘to champion medical technology for a healthier Australia’. Innovation is often iterative, involving ongoing improvements to existing devices that relies on constant input, feedback and support.

According to Mr Burgess, the COVID-19 pandemic has spearheaded some fabulous Australian MedTech innovations from companies of all sizes. The small, Melbourne-based manufacturer, Grey Innovation, for instance, formed a consortium to build 2,000 ventilators, armed with Federal and Victorian Government support.

“Grey Innovation represents a great example of local manufacturing capability and collaboration, including collaboration between governments and other stakeholders, and collaboration between a small Australian company and a large multinational.”

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its various challenges, one of the world’s leading Australian MedTech companies, Stryker, developed a rapid response ICU bed. The device is not only innovative, but so too, is its manufacturing process.

“Stryker is using four small Australian manufacturers to produce the ICU bed. They are not ‘MedTech’ manufacturers, but rather, have pivoted from other types of manufacturing, representing another great example of innovation in design and manufacturing,” Mr Burgess said.

Collaboration has emerged as one of the key industry learnings from the COVID-19 pandemic. Collaboration has enabled the industry to pivot and provide a rapid and agile response to meet the unprecedented challenges at hand. Furthermore, collaboration will enable preparedness for controlling future, infectious disease outbreaks, and the management of other industry-related challenges that arise.

About Ian Burgess

Ian Burgess is CEO of the Medical Technology Association of Australia (MTAA) – which represents more than 100 companies in the medical device sector – a position he has held for the past three years.

Ian has had a varied career in both not-for-profit and commercial organisations. He has served as CEO for the Australian Dental Association (NSW), the Australian Orthopaedic Association and a private equity-backed health business.

He is also a Director of the Singapore-headquartered Asia Pacific Medical Technology Association (APMTA), and a Director and Vice Chair of Red Nose (formerly known as ‘SIDS & Kids’) – a well-respected, not-for-profit organisation dedicated to saving the lives of babies and children.