Medical Imaging Machine Revolution Inches Towards Hungary
While modern imaging equipment is already revolutionizing public healthcare in neighboring countries, it can still be a tedious affair to receive a diagnosis involving a CT or MRI scan in Hungary. However, these devices are becoming more affordable, and the range of services offered is expanding in leaps and bounds.
Artificial intelligence is one of the most exciting tech fields of the 2020s, bringing revolutionary innovations to many areas. AI-enabled processing of big data and images could increase accuracy and efficiency in healthcare, lifting a significant burden from the shoulders of medical professionals.
“The latest multifunctional models, launched in 2022, can, depending on their settings and software capabilities, perform everything from neurological and skeletal examinations to the detection of circulatory disorders and colonoscopy without external intervention, using low-dose, circular X-ray scanning of all body regions, organs and tissues,” says Péter Lányi, CEO of Humantech Solution Zrt., a domestic partner of the Shanghai-based United Imaging Healthcare brand, a recent entrant in the Hungarian market.
He argues that the new tech is producing faster and more accurate images than ever before.
In 2011 there were 73 registered CT machines in the country; by 2021, the number had reached 100. While that growth is good news, it is far below that of the neighboring countries. In Hungary, there is only one CT machine for every 106,228 inhabitants; in Slovenia, Slovakia and Croatia, the figure is one for every 50,000-60,000 people.
Moreover, perhaps in the context of the stricter management of device inventories during the pandemic, the Hungarian stock decreased slightly from 2019 to 2020. By comparison, United Imaging Healthcare has installed nearly 100 brand new high-end CT, MRI, digital X-ray, and mammography machines in the region since it entered the European market in 2020, the company says.
A significant proportion of Hungarian equipment is in public institutions where it is used both for outpatient on-call hospital duties and for services on an appointment basis. This leads to much lower efficiency due to many unplanned changeovers, such as waiting to prepare a patient injured in an accident for examination or cleaning the machine afterward. The situation is not necessarily any better in private clinics: most of them have second-hand, refurbished Western machines, which need a lot of maintenance.
However, the return on investment depends to a large extent on whether the revenue from examinations covers the leasing fees, staff and additional costs. In the same way low-cost airlines do their utmost to reduce turnaround times and increase occupancy, clinics are also trying to maximize the use of their machines in every shift. Emerging manufacturers are also supporting CT and MRI clinics in these efforts.
“The latest generation of machines will automatically pre-position for the patient arriving for an appointment, saving up to 5-10 minutes for a scan,” explains János Laczi, application specialist at Humantech Solution Zrt.
“While one guest is getting dressed and the other is undressing, the machine prepares and ‘adjusts’ based on a digital referral so that the patient can lie in a position and in a way prescribed for the required radiological scan,” he adds.
With these modern devices, images can be taken from any part of the body, from various angles, with different slice densities and resolutions, and with a fraction of the radiation exposure of conventional lung X-ray machines.
In addition, the tech is becoming more autonomous, requiring no specialist radiologist in charge, only an operator. The specialists who evaluate the findings can even work remotely to analyze images constantly coming in from several clinics.
Unfortunately, the statistics show that their work is much needed. For example, in gastrointestinal screening tests, as many as 7-8% of stool samples indicate abnormalities that require attention or intervention. A colonoscopy procedure with CT is not only much faster and more comfortable but its return on investment can be measured in human lives.
Given this, it’s no wonder that the European CT market is set to grow at an average annual rate of 5.8%, from USD 2.1 billion in 2021 to USD 3.1 bln by 2028, according to market researcher DataBridge. At the same time, the sector may see a price evolution typical of IT goods: each year, these machines will be able to do more while prices will hold steady or begin to decrease.
The only factor holding back growth could be a lack of chips, although Humantech Solution Zrt. says that this does not threaten the United Imaging Healthcare machines it sells. The company notes that market development is more intense for Far Eastern manufacturers than for Western European ones.
According to experts, the situation is somewhat similar to the rise of South Korean car brands: in a relatively few years, they have caught up or even overtaken their competitors technically and have gained trust in their brands through reliability, high equipment standards, and lower prices than their competitors.
For example, the new machines from United Imaging Healthcare are barely more expensive than second-hand Western machines, while the standard equipment includes several software add-ons for various screening tests, such as those for common diseases, which are usually sold as an extra by Western manufacturers.
In addition to the spill-over of technological trends, the Hungarian private healthcare boom could be a significant driver of growth.
“In Hungary, paying for a CT or MR scan is still a luxury. Yet a professionally prepared and evaluated image of a herniated disc is no more expensive than a few hours at a chiropractor’s, who might even worsen the patient’s condition in the absence of a real diagnosis,” says Angéla Belcsug, owner of the Várkert Clinic in Keszthely. It replaced its old CT scanner with a new United Imaging machine in 2022. “The time from order to commissioning was just over two months, and the supplier was able to provide full implementation, warranty back-up, training, and Hungarian-language user interfaces,” Belcsug explains.
The new device is 50% faster than the previous one, produces excellent images with lower radiation, and is processed more accurately by AI software.
“Of course, all this is mainly exciting for our radiologists, but things like a virtual colonoscopy, which can examine the intestines without the need for an invasive instrument, or low-dose chest imaging, which allows regular monitoring of the improvement of people who have undergone COVID, are already understandably good news for patients,” she notes.
This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of February 10, 2023.
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