Courtney Williamson is the CEO and founder of AbiliLife, a minority- and woman-owned medical device business making life easier for Parkinson’s patients. She started her company to solve a problem close to her heart.
HomeCare: What was your inspiration for AbiliLife?
Williamson: My mom had Parkinson’s disease for 25 years. For most of my life, I was a caretaker. I was a Ph.D. student at Carnegie Mellon University studying Organizational Behavior around the time that I got the idea to invent the Calibrace+ back brace solution to improve my mom’s posture and balance.
My mom had debilitating posture and was often bent over, I spent a lot of time trying to find a solution for her. I called the Parkinson’s Foundation, but they didn’t know of any solutions on the market. I decided to utilize the engineering talent at Carnegie Mellon University to make a product to help my mom. While designing the product, I learned of the market opportunity around the brace as there are around 1.5 million Parkinson’s patients in the United States and around 70% to 90% have postural instability. I launched the Calibrace+ on the market and obtained a reimbursement code as well as an HME provider number to facilitate easy patient access.
The surprising thing was how many practitioners approached me to use the Calibrace+ for diagnoses other than Parkinson’s such as scoliosis, spinal stenosis, and kyphosis. In fact, I had one physical therapist say that 8 out of 10 of her outpatient rehabilitation clinic patients could benefit from the brace.
HomeCare: How did you design the Calibrace+?
Williamson: I knew that I needed to build something sturdy enough that patients were lifted up while at the same time providing enough flexibility and freedom of movement. Parkinson’s patients want to be active and I didn’t want to hinder their movement. I worked with a capstone engineering course to design the brace. We built 15 prototypes before taking the brace to a startup accelerator program and then to a manufacturer.
HomeCare: What is the therapeutic function of the Calibrace+?
Williamson: The brace rotates the shoulders up and back and provides support across the entire torso including the lower back. It’s a thoracic lumbar sacral orthosis (TLSO) with a rigid support and a flexible front apron. The Calibrace+ has a patented pulley tension system to help pull the patient’s shoulders up and back.
HomeCare: What were some of the challenges in bringing the brace to market?
Williamson: One of the biggest challenges was navigating reimbursement. Speaking with patients as well as reflecting upon my family’s own experience with my mom helped me to understand the importance of patients having access to affordable devices. Many patients are often unable to pay over a certain amount for the brace, so we spend time verifying insurance eligibility prior to dispensing the brace. It was a challenging, but pivotal, step to become a DME provider, but now we can manage the entire fulfilment process for our patients.
HomeCare: How are you marketing AbiliLife?
Williamson: We are starting digital marking campaign this summer because we find that 90% of our patients discover AbiliLife online through our website before speaking with their physicians. Most of our marketing efforts thus far have been word of mouth. We are excited to widen our digital marketing presence so that patients and practitioners are aware of the Calibrace+ solution.
The brace is available via prescription that can be downloaded from our website. Patients may also elect to purchase the brace as a cash payment. We also hope to sell a commercial version of the Calibrace+ on Amazon, the CalibracePro, targeted towards people with back pain.
HomeCare: What are your long-term goals for the company?
Williamson: We want to be known as the place where seniors come for devices to improve their posture and balance. We have started early-stage research and development work on a wearable device for the brace that will track posture and balance. I believe that where the future of health care is: measuring outcomes within a value-based system. I ask patients all the time, “What do you wish you had to better manage your disease?” They want the ability to track symptoms for meeting with doctors and solutions for problems. We’re excited to provide a solution in the future.
HomeCare: What are your concerns for the industry as a whole?
Williamson: I was concerned about how my patients were going to be billed and whether the billing would be completed in an accurate manner, so I brought my billing functionalities in-house. We spend a lot of time educating patients on what insurance will and will not cover. We have many patients who don’t know what kind of medical insurance coverage they have. Sometimes patients don’t realize they have high deductibles and limited out-of-network coverage, which can make it challenging for them to obtain the Calibrace+ and other products. There are cases of fraud within the HME and home health community, which is concerning, but I am thankful that CMS dedicates time and resources towards ensuring a compliant provider network so that patients can remain safe and healthy. AbiliLife does its part by complying with CMS guidelines and being transparent and informative to our patients.