Smart control technology can improve the power mobility experience
by Michael Flowers

The digital revolution is bringing new technologies to power wheelchair controls and offers the provider new revenue opportunities. “Smart” controls now provide patients with a variety of exciting options to improve the quality of their powered mobility experience. From basic drive-only controls to full-featured “expandable” electronics, all of the latest controllers provide new features and smoother driving characteristics from advancements in digital technology.

Today’s controls are also much easier to program than earlier models. Most providers routinely customize the performance parameters of the chair to their patients’ individual needs, especially when someone exhibits poor driving responses during the evaluation or on the initial delivery and setup. In addition, most manufacturers offer training and special pricing on hand-held programmers and PC-based programmers for the controls that power their products. To excel as a power wheelchair provider, being trained on how to customize the performance for a patient, or having a professional on your technical team who can set up and program a chair is an important key to success.

Providers often overlook the opportunity to educate their patient on the standard and alternative features now available from manufacturers with regards to the power wheelchair’s electronics. For example, even some of the most basic controllers can now be programmed to notify the end user when it is time for a service call for the power wheelchair, just as many automobiles do when it’s time for an oil change or a tune-up. If this reminder is important to your patient and the clinician, then suggesting this feature be turned on during programming of the chair can differentiate you from your competitors.

Other features available in many of today’s standard controls include diagnostic capabilities which provide access to live information like the controller temperature, battery voltage or motor current.

These tools can save the provider valuable time in troubleshooting a problem with the chair and help resolve service issues quickly and efficiently.

The major difference between controls used on consumer power chairs and those used on complex rehab chairs is the capabilities of the control’s power modules. Most consumer power controls are capable of operating up to a total of two actuators while complex rehab electronics must be expandable so additional modular components can be added to the control system to meet the specific medical and lifestyle needs of the patient. With these modular components, expandable controls offer consumers the ability to operate up to an unlimited number of seat functions, as well as environmental controls, entertainment systems, computers, telephones, powerchair lighting and more. Understanding how the additional components function is critical to the success of the provider who wants to increase his revenue opportunities with smart technology. Most complex rehab power wheelchair manufacturers provide comprehensive training programs, manuals, tech support and all the tools required to help you expand your business and increase patient satisfaction with their “smart” control systems.

Other trends in expandable controller capabilities include automatic compensation on uneven terrain to keep the chair driving in a straight line; enhanced color displays; and new joystick controls with enlarged light-sensing color displays to make them easier to see inside and outside. A new, potentially trend-setting feature that was added to Pride Mobility’s new Quantum Q-Logic 2 joystick drive control is described as “Body Armor,” to protect it against damage. It is also available with a choice of bottom shells in different colors, which add aesthetic appeal to one of the most visible components of a powerchair, the joystick.

Aside from a powerchair, there are very few desirable power mobility options for the neurologically-impaired patient or first-time user who is unable to control forward and reverse direction, left/right turning, variable speeds and braking with a single input device (i.e. joystick). In addition, because a joystick requires fine motor control skills to manipulate it, and those skills diminish as people age or as a result of certain disabilities, power wheelchairs have traditionally not been an option for people who cannot operate a joystick. For the first time since power wheelchairs were developed in the 1950s, an alternative hand control for consumer powerchairs is now available.

Active Controls’ JoyBar electronic scooter style hand control is recommended for first-time users and patients who want a more intuitive hand control. Unlike the upper body strength required to turn a scooter’s handlebar, steering a powerchair with the JoyBar is similar to the force and range of motion required for an armrest mounted joystick. The JoyBar drive control is easier for an attendant to operate and does not require expandable controls to power it.

The JoyBar hand control offers providers a cash sale upgrade for the consumer power Medicare patient (with an ABN that explains Medicare will only pay for a joystick). Other third party payers like Medicaid in some states as well as private insurers may reimburse for the JoyBar when it is prescribed by a clinician due to a medical necessity.

Another new concept with revenue potential for new and existing powerchair customers is Active Controls’ Center Drive System and ReJoy joystick midline mounting platform which repositions joystick controls. For decades, it has been assumed that joysticks must be mounted on the armrest of the power wheelchair to allow access to the seat and so the joystick would be securely mounted and retain its driving position. By borrowing technology from the defense industry, Active Controls has developed innovative, modular power wheelchair midline-mounting components.

With the robust and stable Center Drive System components (coded as K0108), the joystick can be moved into the line of sight for power wheelchair users, just like the steering controls they are accustomed to in their automobiles and other vehicles, including scooters. The ReJoy’s adjustable, lateral pressure-relieving gel pads provide a resting place for the wrists and hands of the patient. Clinicians can prescribe midline-mounting components when a patient has range-of-motion issues or to prevent the worsening of postural problems as a result of accessing armrest mounted joystick controls. This allows the seating and positioning systems to work in conjunction with the center position of the drive control.

Smart technology controls and new components are expanding the population of patients who can benefit from power mobility. With the multiple benefits smart controls offer, you may want to reach out to some of your existing powerchair customers as well as those individuals who you previously evaluated for a powerchair, but ruled out because of the difficulties they had with using a joystick. Clinicians who embrace this new technology have the potential for more successful patient outcomes. Providers who embrace this new technology can increase revenue opportunities and improve the power wheelchair experience for their patients.

The challenge for HME/DME providers is to become an expert in the new controller and component technologies. Once you adopt new technologies, it broadens your opportunities with wheelchair clinics and therapists. Ask your power wheelchair supplier to help you understand exactly what it takes to be successful. You may be surprised by the comprehensive training available for providers.