updated 5/7/2009 6:39:57 PM ET 2009-05-07T22:39:57

General Electric Co. said Thursday that it will invest $6 billion over the next six years in an attempt to lower the cost of health care and improve the quality of medical care in underserved regions of the United States and abroad.

The broad program sets goals of reducing health care costs by 15 percent through $3 billion of spending on new, lower cost medical technology. The initiative also plans to broaden the use of tools such as electronic medical records and other medical information technology, with the hope of providing more advanced care to 100 million additional people each year.

That will include $2 billion of financing for rural health care systems in the United States to adopt medical IT systems. It will also include money for overseas projects like the expansion of clinics in Cambodia and provide additional funding for maternal health care programs in Bangladesh.

GE said it will build on its current health care division, which sells about $18 billion worth of diagnostic equipment for hospitals and health care information technology annually. It has set an annual revenue target for the initiative, dubbed “healthymagination,” of about two to three times the amount of U.S. gross domestic product growth.

The Fairfield, Conn.-based GE is one of the world’s largest industrial companies, making products like jet engines, household appliances and light bulbs. It has struggled over the past year, as the recession and financial crisis have delivered sharp blows to GE’s manufacturing businesses and its GE Capital finance arm.

(MSNBC is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal, which is a GE company.)

The health care initiative deepens GE’s focus on areas that it considers sources of growth. Four years ago, GE launched a similar project called “ecomagination” that includes work on cleaner energy projects like wind turbines and more efficient electric grids.

“These are really two great expressions of why GE exists,” said GE Chief Executive Jeffrey Immelt. “We can make money solving big problems on big global stages with technology.”

GE’s goal for widening the reach and lowering the cost of medicine is not purely altruistic. By focusing on its work on electronic medical records and technologies that can increase the accuracy of diagnoses and cut down on administrative costs, GE is positioning itself to take advantage of a push to lower costs and expand health care.

President Barack Obama’s $787 billion federal stimulus includes provisions for medical IT, though Immelt said GE would have still done healthymagination without the spending. The stimulus plan also has $1.1 billion for research that compares medical devices and drugs to find the most cost efficient treatments. Many medical systems still work with paper medical records, providing a potentially fertile market for electronic record-keeping systems.

“We don’t run a charity at GE,” Immelt said. “We are in the business of earning profits for our investors. That has been true of every initiative we have launched.

GE expects that some of its new technologies could save money compared to current treatments. For example, a portable ultrasound machine the size of a tablet would mean hospitals wouldn’t have to lug around the big equipment currently used to make images of babies in the womb. The company is developing 50 products that it says will lower costs through better technology.

GE plans to use its NBC television networks as a way to increase consumer knowledge about health, and will launch a daily program devoted to health in June on MSNBC. And the company expects to improve the health of its own 600,000 workers and dependents in an effort to bring down its $2.5 billion in annual health care costs.

GE will also to appoint a health care advisory board that includes former Sens. Tom Daschle and Bill Frist to work on the initiative.

The company’s shares rose 27 cents, or 2 percent, to $13.947 Thursday.

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