For home medical equipment providers interested in starting or expanding a beds and support surfaces business, there's good news. The market is strong
by Paula Patch
March 1, 2003

For home medical equipment providers interested in starting or
expanding a beds and support surfaces business, there's good news.
The market is strong and growing, and well worth the investment,
according to industry experts.

At the same time, providers should not enter the beds and
support surfaces market lightly. Experts caution providers to be
prepared to do their homework — on the products, on strategic
marketing and on the customers.

Fiscal Growth…

According to a 2001 report from market research firm Frost &
Sullivan, the market for specialty beds and support surfaces for
wound care will increase almost threefold by 2008, from $935.5
million in 2001 to $2.09 billion in 2008. Beds and support surfaces
manufacturers are well aware of these numbers.

Experts point to several factors contributing to market —
and industry — growth, including an aging population,
increased life expectancy, and baby boomers with money to
spend.

“The [U.S.] society is clearly an aging society.
Additionally, people are living longer than in years past. For
example, the projected growth of the over-80 [year-old] population
is estimated to double from 7 million to 14 million by 2030; the
over-100 population will grow from 30,000 to 700,000 —
they're staggering numbers. The entire HME industry will see growth
as a result,” says Abbey Daniels, chief executive officer for
SenTech Medical Systems, which manufactures a range of alternating
pressure, low air loss, lateral rotation and bariatric support
surfaces.

“The market is growing. The baby boomers are contributing
to this,” says Sandy Thomas, national sales director for
Flex-a-Bed, which manufactures high-end, adjustable beds.
“Eighty percent of our beds are sold to people age 50 and
over — not that 50 is old. Many of those customers don't even
need the bed medically, but they have more leisure time — and
they have the money to buy this type of bed.”

…And Physical Growth

“Sixty percent of the U.S. population is overweight, and
morbid obesity consumes about 12 percent of the health care
budget,” says Duwayne Kramer, president of Leisure-Lift, a
company that has manufactured a bariatric bed since the early
1980s. Leisure-Lift makes three bariatric beds, two of which
— a 600-pound weight capacity and an 800-pound capacity
— are for the home care market.

“Bariatrics is a growing market, but one that many dealers
are not aware of. There are a lot of bariatrics patients out there
and dealers need to think of them as a market,” Kramer
adds.

Other manufacturers, like Susan Wilson, director of research,
design and development for Supracor, agree.

“We introduced a bariatric cushion at Medtrade, and it's
been doing very well because there's so much demand for it,”
Wilson says. Supracor manufactures wheelchair cushions and a
mattress overlay designed to cover an existing hospital
mattress.

“[Bariatrics patients] really do live in the bed. We have
to help the caregiver and help that person survive on a daily
basis,” Kramer explains.

Seeking Standards

A growing market necessarily offers a wide range of products,
which presents some challenges in the case of beds and support
surfaces, especially in terms of reimbursement and product
quality.

“There are no standards of performance for support
surfaces. The only standards are things like the height of the
mattress. Since a wide range of products meet the same billing
code, there is a wide range of effectiveness of product and a wide
range of prices — yet all of the products have the same
reimbursement,” Daniels says. “It is challenging for
dealers to decide what holds the greatest therapeutic value. In
other segments of HME, features often are what differentiate the
products. With support surfaces, clinical outcomes are what
differentiate the products, and making that product decision is
difficult. The more experienced you are, certainly the greater your
knowledge base is.”

Help is on the way, in terms of standards, experts say. At least
three industry organizations are in the process of developing
standards for support and seating surfaces.

“In the cushion market, there is only one [Medicare
reimbursement] code for pressure-relieving and positioning cushions
With the mattresses, there are Group 1 and Group 2,” Wilson
says. “Both markets are developing new standards for their
respective products. The National Pressure Ulcer Advisory Panel is
working on support surfaces primarily, while the ISO [International
Organization for Standardization] and RESNA [Rehabilitation
Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America] are
working on wheelchair cushions. There are so many products out
there, and [these groups are] trying to develop some standards that
will assist clinicians in choosing products for their patients.

“Everybody is obviously concerned with the reimbursement
environment and what's going to happen,” Wilson continues.
“The most unfortunate thing that could happen would be if
reimbursement were set at a certain amount or if products were
described to meet certain criteria. If those things happened, then
you'd have manufacturers producing products to meet codes, rather
than innovating.”

Until some standards guidelines are developed — a feat
that manufacturers expect will happen soon — providers of
beds and support surfaces will have to do their own research and
establish their own standards for quality.

“Unfortunately, the average individual can't tell the
difference between a high-quality surface and a low-quality surface
[by looking at it.] [Once they have used the product, though] a lot
of people are able to recognize the difference,” says Brad
Frickey, president of Sunflower Medical, which manufactures
air-therapy mattresses for home care, nursing home, hospice and
acute care patients.

According to Daniels, “the best practice is to really
understand the product, in terms of both quality and therapy. In
the support surfaces market, this is a lot more difficult than it
sounds. Dealers should talk to multiple manufacturers and have them
explain how their products provide therapy.”

Sales Outlook

HME providers who dig in their heels and educate themselves
about the products can expect smooth sailing when selling beds and
support surfaces.

“It all goes back to the education. For any manufacturer,
one of the best ways to sell is to make sure that you have a good
understanding of the product and know that one product will not
work for everyone,” Wilson says.

According to the experts, most providers already have the tools
to sell beds and support surfaces. The challenge is bringing in the
customers.

“If providers are currently billing Medicare, they already
know how to bill. It's just a matter of finding the people who need
the support surfaces and selling the products,” Frickey
says.

“Dealers should cultivate relationships with institutions
that work with bariatric patients. Get referrals. Make it known
that [bariatrics] devices are available and reimbursed by Medicare
or by private insurance. It also helps to sell a heavy-duty scooter
[or other bariatric product] — this is a niche market all the
way across the board,” Kramer says.

And, all agree that dealers must get the message — and the
products — in front of the people who will be buying the
products. According to Thomas, advertising in a newspaper is a good
sales strategy, especially if the ad is strategically placed in a
local section.

“This sounds horrible, but the obituary page is the best
page [on which to advertise],” Thomas says. “Folks that
are older — and even younger adults — peruse [the
obituary] page for familiar names. Run a small ad once a week. This
brings in serious customers who are coming in for particular
item.”

However, once the customer visits the showroom, displaying the
products for the customers to try out is a crucial component of
closing the sale.

“Customers want to try the bed, to test the firmness and
to see the length. Even if don't buy the bed then, when they go
home and fall asleep on the couch, they'll remember how the bed
felt. The beds sell themselves,” Thomas adds.

Experts Interviewed:

Abbey Daniels, chief executive officer, SenTech Medical
Systems, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Brad Frickey, president, Sunflower
Medical, Ellis, Kan.; Duwayne Kramer, president, Leisure-Lift,
Kansas City, Kan.; Sandy Thomas, national sales director,
Flex-a-Bed, Long Beach, Calif.; Susan Wilson, director of research,
design and development for San Jose, Calif.-based Supracor.