Health industry misses exports

AUSTRALIA is missing out on a major trade opportunity because it lacks a coordinated approach to attract foreigners here for medical treatment, according to Professor Ian Constable.

Speaking last week at the inaugural Business Leaders Forum for the Lions’ Eye Institute which he founded 20 years ago, Prof Constable said the potential market was huge with 40,000 Indonesians travelling for medical reasons every year.

Prof Constable said the Indonesian market for eye treatment alone is $100 million a year.

“Australia is sitting on a neglected and sleeping industry in the form of exporting our health services,” he said.

Prof Constable pointed to the education sector where thousands of students come to Australia every year, and said the export industry worth $5 billion per annum to the national economy had been created with the backing of the Federal Government.

He  said one of the biggest issues was the strict  visa requirements and the time they took to secure.

“If someone needs an operation within a week, our system will not respond in a week,” he said.

He said less than 3000 visas a year were issued to people for medical services, even though Australia had the region’s most advanced medical system.

This meant Australia was missing out on vital funds to support its costly medical infrastructure, as well as the potential benefits of export income derived from families who tend to travel with patients.

Prof Constable reserved some of his criticism for the Australian medical system’s structure.

“That is so generous to doctors that they don’t need to seek business outside the country,” he said.

He also spoke about the tough business of exporting medical technology, particularly raising adequate funds to pursue markets such as the US.

Prof Constable pointed to the recent failure of his $20 million listed technology venture Q-Vis as a case in point.

Among the things he said he had learned from the financial collapse were that it needed his 100 per cent devotion as a promoter; the technology was unproven at a commercial level; and there was a huge cost to being a public listed company.

“In the case of Q-Vis we raised $20 million and licensed excellent technology, only to see the project fail halfway through the US-FDA trials,” he said.

While the reasons were complex, Perth’s isolation from the venture capital markets was a key point.

“Compare that experience to the American-based company EyeTech, which has raised $US248 million for a three-year drug trial.”

That, he said, was a high-risk drive to treat just one eye problem.

“The scale and funds-per-project available in Australia is inadequate.”

Prof Constable said LEI had learned these lessons when it launched Argus Biomedical to commercialise the institute’s artificial cornea, Alphacor.

Five devices were implanted in the US last week, with the aim of Argus to be a self-sustaining Australian ophthalmic company with enough turnover to develop new projects or license US operators.

“We believe such an entity needs to be primarily based in the US with access to venture capital in realistic amounts as well as to the technical pool and markets.”

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