Bursting at the Seams

It's not easy to grow sales in the home medical equipment environment. But due to increased obesity awareness, and better-designed products to help the

It's not easy to grow sales in the home medical equipment
environment. But due to increased obesity awareness, and
better-designed products to help the overweight segment of the
population, the adage “big is beautiful” has never been
more true.

“Bariatrics is definitely growing — no pun intended
— and becoming a larger part of the HME marketplace,”
says Bill Baker, director of training for Drive Medical. In fact,
both the increase in awareness and an increase in the morbidly
obese population are key reasons why sales are growing, he

When Baker entered the HME industry 27 years ago, he says
Medicare and most manufacturers did not recognize bariatrics as its
own category. However, he notes, “the nationwide emphasis on
obesity, diabetes research and the emergence of specialty
physicians and bariatric centers have created more awareness in
obesity and management of the bariatric market.”

Drive and numerous other manufacturers now offer extensive
product lineups including mobility, beds and bath safety products,
all designed to help patients live more productive lives. And after
submitting a claim and processing Medicare paperwork, the margins
are still reasonable, experts contend.

Big and Getting Bigger

There's no doubt bariatrics is starting to boom, according to
Joe Zervios, director of communications for the Obesity Action
Coalition. In the United States alone, an estimated 93 million
people are obese, according to the Coalition's figures.

Obese individuals — as determined by a body mass index of
30 or higher, or a weight 100 pounds heavier than their ideal body
weight — are at higher risk for impaired mobility. They also
are more at risk of developing diseases such as diabetes,
hypertension, heart disease, stroke, osteoarthritis and sleep
apnea, among other conditions.

In 2002, the most recent year statistics are available, 25
percent of the morbidly obese were being treated for six or more
co-morbid conditions.

As awareness of obesity grows, so do the products designed to
assist that population.

“In the past six months, more and more people are starting
to delve into this market,” Zervios says, adding that he
frequently gets calls from people with bariatric product ideas.
“It's not so much that these products didn't exist before;
before we never saw a need for these products. Obesity is coming to
the forefront and is finally being recognized by the health care
community as a disease.”

DuWayne Kramer, president of Leisure-Lift, says sales of many
HME products are growing in the 6 percent to 8 percent range. With
bariatric awareness up in the past five years, however, he has seen
sales of his company's bariatric beds growing at double that

Additionally, weight requirements for equipment designed for the
morbidly obese are going up. “We continue to increase the
capacity and increase the capability of individual units,”
Kramer says. “We now make chairs clear up to 675

“We have to assume people are getting bigger and
heavier,” says Harmar Mobility President Chad Williams, who
predicts the trend will continue. Williams says Harmar has had to
increase the weight capacities on its lifts and ramps. “We
had a 300-pound capacity lift five years ago, and last year we
upped that to a 400-pound capacity,” he says.

Bundles Can Mean Better Sales

“The bariatric market is expanding at a very fast
rate,” agrees Len Feldman, owner of bariatric bed-maker Big
Boyz Industries. “The market is growing as needs are growing.
People who use our products are using so many other products, such
as respiratory products [and] diabetic products. Once they pass 500
or 600 pounds, [patients] develop so many health problems that
anyone servicing them has a customer that is using a great deal of

That situation offers providers good opportunities for multiple
sales, manufacturers say, using one well-priced product to secure
that first sale. Then, once they have the customer's attention,
providers can often add to that sale simply by showing other
bariatric products the customer might need, says Drive's Baker.

“Bundling items — i.e., a walker, commode, bed, etc.
— seems to work well,” agrees Fran Spidare, patient
transport product manager for Invacare. She projects annual growth
rates for the bariatrics products market in the 7 to 10 percent

While there is good market potential and higher reimbursement
for bariatric products, Spidare points out, the challenge is
learning to “target marketing to the

Product Integrity Is Key

As products proliferate to take advantage of available dollars
in the marketplace, manufacturers caution providers to educate
themselves about what is available. Even if a product is labeled
appropriate for the bariatric market, it might not be. Providers
need to pay close attention to product specifications and
engineering, even for the simplest items they sell.

For example, the Obesity Action Coalition's Zervios recalls one
vendor trying to sell hangers that would better hold an obese
person's clothes. While that sounded good in theory, Zervios says,
the hangers were virtually useless since they were too big to fit
the depth of most normal -sized closets.

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