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New Trends in
Health Care Equipment

Welfare '99, an international welfare and health industry exposition, was held at Port Messe Nagoya at the end of May 1999. More than 150 companies and groups exhibited their products, attracting more than 57,000 people over three days.

Health care equipment to date has focused primarily on compensating for impaired physical functions. However, with the global graying of society attracting increasing attention, people are also beginning to look to such equipment as labor-saving devices for care-givers. In Aichi Prefecture, health care equipment is currently being developed to respond to the growing number of users and their diversifying needs.

Rapid graying of society

The changing wheelchair

Aids for care-givers

Rapid graying of society

The aging of Japanese society is occurring at an unprecedented speed. There are currently around 20.5 million senior citizens (65 years or over) in Japan, making up around 16.2% of the national population (1998 estimate). In Europe, senior citizens account for 17.5% of the population in Sweden (figure for 1994), 15.7% in Britain (1994), and 15.0% in France (1995).

A wheelchair safety experiment at the Japan Bicycle Technical Center in Inuyama. The various types of wheelchairs that manufacturers develop are brought here for safety checks.
The Japanese figure may not seem particularly unusual, but comparing the number of years each country took for the 65-and-over age bracket to increase from 7% to 14% of the total population, one can see that Japan's population is aging at an alarming rate: Sweden took 85 years, while it took Britain 46 years and France 116. But in Japan, it took just 24 years. If this rate continues, one out of every four people in Japan will be 65 or over by 2015 to 2020. No society in the history of humankind has ever experienced such a rapid graying of its population. This is reflected most prominently in the wheelchair industry, since the wheelchair is the most popular type of health care equipment.

The changing wheelchair

The Japan Bicycle Technical Center in the city of Inuyama, Aichi, is an experimental research facility that tests the durability and safety of bicycles and wheelchairs. It is the only test facility for wheelchairs in Japan, and thus experimental models are sent here from all over the country.

Yoshinobu Takahashi, the center's deputy director general and a long-time observer of wheelchair evolution in Japan, describes the recent situation as the "dawning of a new age." Japan currently produces around 200,000 to 220,000 manual and electric wheelchairs each year. The ratio of manual to electric wheelchairs is approximately nine to one. Moreover, most manual wheelchairs are produced by two companies in Aichi and one in Gifu. However, over the last few years, this pattern has begun showing signs of change.

According to Takahashi, "many different industries are becoming involved in both manual and electric wheelchair production, and competition is gradually intensifying. In the near future, health care equipment is expected to grow into an enormous market as companies from other industries seeing business opportunities rush in."

Among the leaders of this new pack are Aichi-based auto parts companies. These companies all have advanced technological capacities and know all about effective production methods. If they can develop products that respond accurately to consumer needs, they have the capacity to seize a major share of the market.

One such company is Aisin Seiki Co., Ltd., based in the city of Kariya, Aichi. A major manufacturer of auto parts, Aisin Seiki has recently been actively engaged in the area of health care equipment, developing and commercializing products like wheelchairs and special beds.

Masao Tanaka, general manager of the New Business Planning Office, explains that "each disabled or elderly person has different needs according to the type and degree of their disability. For example, because electric wheelchairs have traditionally been designed for persons with severe disabilities, they're too large and heavy for people who are still active. There is also room on the market for a wheelchair for use by an able person when they are tired, for example. A key point in making health care equipment from now on will be meeting exact user needs."

Greater competition should encourage diversification, expanding user options and lowering prices, which still tend to be quite high. However, this could also mean that Aichi loses its central role in Japan's wheelchair manufacturing industry. Takahashi says: "Naturally, there is that possibility. However, the speed of the Aichi region's technological response when new needs emerge has always been outstanding. I believe that Aichi will remain the center of wheelchair development and production even in the new era to come."

Aids for care-givers

"Most health care equipment is created for use by the disabled and the elderly. However, our concept is completely the opposite. In other words, we are developing equipment for the care-giver to use." This is how Katsuyuki Miyata, chief researcher at Sun Room Inc.'s Research Institute, based in Toyota, describes his company's concept.

A training course for Sun Room's home bathing service.
Sun Room provides such health care services as home bathing and nursing care for bedridden senior citizens and other clients. It is known in particular as the first company in Japan to launch a bathing service on wheels. That was in 1975, and Sun Room now operates around 90 such bathing vehicles, with around 4,000 clients in locations ranging from Aichi to Kyushu in southern Japan. In 1990 it also began developing its own health care equipment.

"Initially we used showers and other bathing equipment that were already on the market. But since they weren't designed for health care use, health workers found them hard to operate. Bathing is the heaviest work among the care services, so we wanted to reduce this burden as much as possible. Our answer was to develop our own line of bathing equipment." One result of Miyata's efforts was a car-mounted hot-water supply facility. Even now, he draws ideas from the bathing service staff and reflects these in the development of new equipment.

"There are a broad range of needs that health care equipment must meet, and such needs aren't necessarily those of the disabled and the elderly. With the rapid aging of Japanese society requiring 1.5 million helpers to be trained, health care equipment designed especially for the use of professional care-givers should be absolutely vital. This is something we can say from our own experience in the service industry," says Miyata.

Tadao Nomura, an advisor to the board of trustees of Nihon Fukushi University and former chief of the Aichi Industrial Research Institute's Applied Technology Department, has the following view of these efforts.

"The key point in health care equipment development from now on will be uncovering hidden needs. Companies will need to move beyond the confines of specialization-for example, service companies may need to manufacture equipment to better meet their needs. Aichi has the advantage of possessing a great many leading-edge industrial technologies. To put this to work in the field of health care equipment, much more energy will need to be devoted to forging alliances among companies in different industries."

What can a company do with its technology? The development of health care equipment in Aichi is currently exploring ways to link technology and society's needs.

(Photos by Tadashi Aizawa, Text by Masahiro Ota)