Medical technology (or “med tech” as it is often known) relates to a wide range of technologies, to name but a few: dental implants, imaging technologies, radiation therapy technologies, operating tables, diagnostics, and wearable patient monitoring devices (and not pharmaceutical technologies). Med tech has been experiencing steady growth in recent years, as evidenced by the number of patent applications for medical technologies filed at the European Patent Office (EPO).
As the graph below shows, the number of patent applications filed in the medical technology field has grown by over 45% in the last 10 years. In 2020, medical technology again surpassed digital communication as the top technical field in terms of number of applications filed at the EPO, with 15,193 medical technology applications filed that year. Medical technology has been vying with digital communication for the top spot since then.
Consideration of factors behind the continued growth of the number of patent filings in the med tech field
The field was relatively resilient during 2020 and 2021, possibly due to the COVID-19 pandemic renewing focus on innovation in some areas of medical technology, for example when many companies entered the global race to develop ventilator devices that were easily and readily available to manufacture. Certainly, this may have contributed to the relative resilience of the field during 2020 and 2021, when compared to the drop in filings felt in other technological sectors, but it cannot explain the long-term growth of the field over the last 10 years. Other factors must be at play.
Firstly, demographics may be a key driver, with older societies increasingly needing more devices to manage the effects of old age and persistent chronic conditions. Additionally, in the past medical technologies have focussed on mechanical, electromechanical and material innovations, however recently the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) has started to rapidly gain interest in recent years. A 2019 report by the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore on medical technology inventions that incorporated AI, reported a stable number of publications of ~500 medical technology inventors inventions in Singapore annually in 2009-2013, followed by an annual growth rate of 28.5% over the period of 2014-2018. (Link to source).
Part of this growth can be attributed to a softening of regulatory factors considered when filing AI inventions relating to medical technology, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) having recently initiated a fast-tracking program that decreases the time taken for approval of imaging and diagnostics products that incorporate AI. A lowering of regulatory burden in the US will often increase the rate at which products can be developed, in turn leading to an increase in patent filings worldwide. (Link to source). In parallel, the boundaries of patentability of AI inventions has become more well defined as the case law has developed around the world, somewhat reducing the financial risk of investing in patent protection in this area.
Outside of AI inventions, the drive to treat patients at home and otherwise better economise the use of hospital space appears to be driving innovation, with terms such as “wearable devices”, “remote patient monitoring” and “Electronic Medical Records (EMR) systems” increasingly appearing in patent publications over recent years. In addition, the desire for improved surgical outcomes and personalised medicine are driving the fields of surgical robotics and individualised 3D printed devices. (Link to source).
Thus, aside from demographic factors, the growth of the number of patents filed medical technology sector can largely be attributed to the broadening of the medical technology sector to include new technologies. The devices that companies are filing patent applications for are not only devices to for the direct physical treatment of patients in hospital settings, but for remote monitoring and treatment of patients at home. The broadening of technologies has led to household names that we do not traditionally associate with the medical world, but instead with software and telecoms, such as Microsoft and Nokia, beginning to file patents which concern medical technology. (Link to Patentscope), (Espacenet search results).
As would be expected, growth in the number of patents filed is also feeding through into increased litigation. An analysis of patent litigation cases filed in the US showed a near two-fold increase of medical technology patent litigation in the last decade compared to the preceding decade. (Link to source).
Given the risks and opportunities available in the ever expanding medical technology market, it is imperative for companies that work in this field to understand where they stand when it comes to their IP. As the value of the market and number of players involved increases, the need for a robust patent portfolio, and an understanding of a company’s freedom to operate, will increasingly become more necessary. The need for increased awareness is true even for manufacturers of mechanical, electromechanical and material innovation-based devices, as these fields mature and as devices of all types increasingly incorporate “smart” features, for example to enable remote use of the device, or to enable interfacing with a hospital’s record system.
We are a European firm and assist our medical technology clients to protect their IP rights in the UK, Europe and worldwide from our offices in the UK and The Netherlands and through our international network of trusted local attorneys.
If you are looking to develop a long-term relationship with an IP firm who specialise in medical technology, please contact Matthew Critten, Julian Crump or Samuel Read to discuss your requirements and innovations.
Samuel Read Attorney