The European Patent Office (EPO) recently published its annual patent filing data, in which medical technology innovators remained at the top of the patent protection rankings. In 2015, more patent applications (12,474) were filed for medical devices than for any other type of technology, including digital communication, biotechnology and pharmaceuticals. Medical technology has led the pack since 2007, when it first overtook computer technology. In addition, the year-on-year growth in patent applications in the medical technology field (1,240 more were filed in 2015 than in 2014) exceeds that of all other technical fields.
The gap between the numbers of European patent applications in different healthcare-related technologies has increased almost every year over the last decade, with medical technology far outrunning biotechnology and pharmaceuticals (see below).
The graph shows an average annual increase of about 4 per cent in the number of medical technology patent filed over the last ten years. (The spike in 2010 and subsequent trough are probably the result of a change in the patent rules, which has since been reversed.)
Only 40 per cent of European patent applications filed in 2015 in the medical devices field originated in Europe; another 41 per cent came from the USA. This data suggests that medical technology research and development activity in the USA is more intense than in Europe because applicants tend to protect their inventions in their domestic market before seeking patent protection abroad.
While three of the top ten applicants in the medical devices field are from Europe (Philips in the 1st position, Sanofi 4th, and Fresenius 10th), half are from the USA – Johnson & Johnson (2nd), Medtronic (3rd), Boston Scientific (6th), Procter & Gamble (7th) and Abbott (8th). Other countries contributing significantly to the number of medical device applications filed in Europe are Japan (9 per cent of filings, with Olympus being the fourth most prolific company) and South Korea (2 per cent of filings, with Samsung at the top). China has contributed 1 per cent of all European patent filings in the medical devices field. Although the number of filings from each of these markets has generally grown over the last 10 years, other than the USA and Europe – which have jostled for the top spot for some time – the order of top ranking countries hasn’t changed much. The USA now holds the top spot in terms of numbers of medical technology patent filings, aided by a 17 per cent growth over the year. European numbers, in contrast, have only grown by an average of 8.5 per cent although, as may be expected, there is considerable variation between different countries.
Within Europe, over the last decade, companies and other applicants from Germany have consistently filed more applications than those from any other country (see above). The Netherlands come in second; however, 90 per cent of its applications came from top filer, Philips. Switzerland, France and the UK round out the top five.
The individual innovations that contribute to the medical technology category, as defined by the EPO (and the World Intellectual Property Organisation) include: compounds and dressings; physical therapy apparatus; hardware for preparing and administering pharmaceuticals; chemical treatment; therapy with electromagnetic waves; dentistry; veterinary medicine; and general diagnosis and surgery. Although the EPO doesn’t publish up-to-date statistics on patent application levels for each of these individual areas, a review of published applications since 2003 suggests that a significant number of filings relate to implants and associated devices, and methods for introducing these into the human body. Another significant area of applications is for methods, apparatus and chemical treatments for sterilisation or disinfection. Many medical professionals are under pressure to reduce the invasiveness of treatments and associated recuperation time. While there are many factors driving the growth in patent filings, it is probable that this pressure is contributing to a healthy culture of innovation among medical technology providers. We also shouldn’t ignore the increasing consumer demand for medical technology – personal healthcare devices, now a major source of revenue for many high-tech companies, also require research and development, leading to patent filings.
As the demands of both consumers and healthcare systems grow, so will the R&D programmes developing technology to meet those demands, and the numbers of patent applications flowing from them.
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