When Covid-19 struck, the global demand for patient monitors and gas measurement modules used in ventilators skyrocketed. GE Healthcare Finland sprang into action, rapidly ramping up production of the medical equipment at its Helsinki-based manufacturing plant.

The company had been assembling the devices at its Finnish factory for years, but the sudden influx of urgent requests from intensive care units across the world was unprecedented. Nearly 200 new manufacturing employees were hired to cope with the soaring demand.

“We were cranking out volumes that the factory had never experienced before,” recalls GE Healthcare general manager for monitoring solutions, Neal Sandy.

“Our team in Finland was absolutely essential in executing patient monitoring production, as well as supporting ventilator production in other parts of our business, both of which were critical in response to the pandemic. I am really proud of them; not only did they work extraordinarily hard during that time, but they were fast, nimble and resilient.”

GE Healthcare first put down roots in Finland in 2003 with the €2.02bn ($2.4bn) acquisition of Finnish medical equipment manufacturer Instrumentarium Oyj, which established Helsinki as one of GE’s global centres of excellence for its medical technology division. Today, its Finnish operations include a thriving R&D and manufacturing site.

A hub for health and wellness

It is little wonder the healthcare leader chose Helsinki to expand operations. Healthtech is one of the fastest-growing high-tech segments of Finnish industry with exports reaching a new record of €2.4bn just prior to the pandemic, an increase of 5.7% over the previous year. The Nordic country is one of only seven in the world to export more medtech than it imports and is a hotspot for research, development and innovation, hosting a multitude of international health sector heavyweights, including Bayer, Thermo Fischer and Fujitsu.

Finland’s response to the pandemic only served to demonstrate the strength and resiliency of its healthcare infrastructure. The country boasts a publicly funded, universal access healthcare system that offers high value-for-money, with the annual cost per patient coming in at around €2,800, while private healthcare in the US costs nearly €6,900.

The quality of the care available has turned the country into an attractive health travel destination. “Finland offers first-class cancer care,” says Tarja Enala, Invest in Finland’s senior advisor for health and wellness. “The five-year survival rate for most cancers is among the highest in the world.”

Last year, the Cancer IO project was launched to make immunotherapy more effective and support the introduction of new treatments into healthcare. Coordinated by the University of Helsinki, with partners from several Finnish hospitals and companies, it is one of the largest projects in Europe focusing on immunotherapy for cancer and received €4.8m in funding from Business Finland.

GE Healthcare has also benefitted from funding from the Finnish innovation funding agency, receiving €10m to fuel the development of small, wearable, wireless patient monitors as part of its €28.5m research project, which employed 60 new employees in Finland.

“These medical devices are complicated so there is continued room for innovation,” says Sandy. “Business Finland has been a great partner of ours because our goals are mutually aligned. We have been able to develop some ambitious technology.”

Digital health is wealth

Research, development and innovation within the health sector is made easier by the plethora of digital data available. “100% of our health records are in electronic format and we have innovation-friendly legislation that enables the utilisation of this information in R&D activities,” notes Enala. “Our electronic medical records are the only ones in the world where clinical, social care and prescriptions-based patient reported outcomes and social data are fully integrated.”

The Finnish Act on the Secondary Use of Health and Social Data was introduced in 2019 to facilitate the effective and safe processing of and access to this information for developing data-driven health innovations. “It is a unique law that gives Finland a very competitive advantage from an international perspective,” says Enala.

Sandy adds: “When you are doing clinical research, it is always helpful to have a robust health record of the patients that our research partners are interacting with. Finland is one of the best in the world for having sustained data on the patient populations they serve.”

Enala stresses the importance of citizen trust and points to high levels of engagement and willingness to participate in research studies among the Finnish population. For example, FinnGen is a large-scale personalised medicine research project that is collecting and analysing the genome and health data from 500,000 Finnish biobank participants to identify new therapeutic targets and diagnostics for treating numerous diseases. The study is funded by Business Finland, together with 12 international pharmaceutical companies.

Finland’s health sector is leading the digital revolution by utilising the latest technologies to increase the efficiency of operations and improve services. This is bolstered by quality training in fields like AI and machine learning.

A unique ecosystem

For Sandy, the availability of a highly educated workforce is invaluable. “Our team in Finland has deep clinical engineering skills, but the cost of engineering is relatively reasonable compared with other parts of the world,” he says. “They are hard-working, talented, natural global thinkers.”

Facilitating this collaboration has been a top priority for GE Healthcare. In 2014, the medtech giant launched the Health Innovation Village, its first healthtech start-up campus, opening up a portion of its facility in Helsinki for nascent businesses.

“It gives them an opportunity not only to have a space but also to interact with our employee group,” says Sandy. “It is about sharing a common place to have a conversation about innovation. Certainly, I think it is useful for those companies but it is also very beneficial for our team because they see young start-ups working hard to build their business.”

Finland is dedicated to fostering public-private partnerships and creating a flourishing ecosystem for health research and development. An array of testbeds provide companies with a real hospital environment for developing new products and services, giving access to feedback from healthcare professionals and patients.

This is something Sandy and his colleagues have found hugely beneficial. “We have a great relationship with some of the hospitals in Helsinki and have worked on various research projects with them,” he says.

Given this success, it is hardly surprising GE Healthcare plans to increase its Finnish R&D operations. “We recently made the decision to add incremental engineering resources and transfer some of the products that were being designed elsewhere to Finland,” explains Sandy. “The output of the Helsinki team has meant we want to invest more.”

This comes at a time when pharmaceutical and life sciences multinational Bayer recently announced plans to invest $303m in a new contraceptive production plant in Turku, due to be completed in 2025.

Such efforts are burnishing Finland’s reputation as a pioneering hub for health sector research, innovation and investment. As the global market continues to expand at pace, the prognosis for further foreign investment and growth has never looked healthier.