Incredible, Shrinking DME!

Incredible, Shrinking DME!

DENISE H. McCLINTON

Byline: DENISE H. McCLINTON

As a society, we are intrigued by design. We want things to look aesthetically pleasing and stylish. It shows in the vast array of interiors magazines on the newsstand and television networks that focus solely on home improvements. And it doesn’t stop with home design. Cars are becoming sleeker, and home electronics continue to push the envelope when it comes to size and capabilities.

In the same vein, users of home oxygen, power chairs and other home medical equipment share a desire for products that complement their homes and fit their active lifestyles. In response, the HME industry is moving forward with new designs that not only look good but also exceed the performance of their predecessors.

“Consumer-centric designs and functionality are at the forefront,” says Ron Richard, vice president of marketing for the Americas for ResMed, Poway, Calif. “At ResMed, we are doing a lot more from the ground up and getting patient input early on, so we develop the right products and get them out on time with the right features.”

Keeping customer needs in mind is essential, says Mark Miller, vice president of marketing for Pride Mobility Products. “What we are passionate about is supplying these products to people so they can do the things that they want,” he says. “That is why the designs need to be innovative, why they need to look great and why the quality needs to be extremely high.”

Using the latest technology and pushing product design to the next level to improve patient care is apparent in all product categories.

“There’s a spirit of creativity and a spirit of invention that is apparent when you’re driven to find an answer, and when you know the answer is to come up with something that improves the standard of care for patients,” says Geoff Deane, Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Inogen’s vice president of engineering and chief technology officer.

PRODUCTS WITH STYLE

Scott Wilkinson, group product manager of respiratory for Elyria, Ohio-based Invacare Corp., says results from patient focus groups reveal that the trends in product design for respiratory patients are the same trends that society in general craves.

“When you look at cell phones, laptop computers, radios and digital music players, everything is smaller, lighter, more compact, and easier to use,” he explains. “It’s the same thing for the respiratory patients. They want smaller [portable oxygen systems] that don’t stand out and don’t drag them down when they are out and about.”

Richard also emphasizes the importance of keeping products from looking “medical,” particularly to increase compliance.

“A number of people in the industry are looking outside the traditional medical product lines and going to companies like Sony or Bose that are making products that sit in a bedroom or that people travel with, such as the Sony Walkmans, and trying to replicate that same model somewhat with the medical devices that we are manufacturing,” he says.

Pushing design to a higher level is imperative for the respiratory industry, particularly when you consider the patient profiles.

Because early diagnosis is occurring more frequently, patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) who require oxygen therapy are ambulatory and eager to enjoy life, says Wilkinson.

“They are informed on what their treatment options are, are Internet-savvy and see direct-to-patient advertising that helps inform them of some of their alternatives,” he says. “All of this adds up to respiratory patients demanding smaller, lighter, longer-lasting portables, whether it’s oxygen or aerosol therapy portables.”

Wilkinson adds that battery life is an important factor as well.

“A lot of the electronics trends we’re seeing show that people want cell phone batteries and laptop batteries that last longer, and that holds true for the oxygen patient as well,” he says. “They want a portable device that is going to last longer so they don’t have to worry about running out. It sets them free; they don’t have to be tied to any home base.”

According to Darryl Risinger, director of marketing for Inogen, battery technology is another example of how the HME industry has looked to others for new methods. By using lithium ion batteries, respiratory patients can stay mobile on portable systems for two to three hours.

“The computer industry has pushed battery technology research with millions of dollars,” he says. “Now, we are able to piggyback on top of all of that research, because the same battery technology that applies to a computer can also apply to your digital camera, your cell phone and even a portable oxygen concentrator.”

CPAP devices used to treat obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) have also evolved to offer patients comfortable treatment with a non-medical appearance. Although users want smaller machines, it is important to keep function as the first priority, says Richard.

“Size is important, but the major priority is [the device] has to be quiet, it has to function to a fairly high level and it has to provide the patient with good, solid therapy. At the same time, we have to listen to consumers, and what they’re asking for is a smaller device,” he explains.

But smaller is not always better, particularly for people with limited dexterity such as the elderly or those with arthritis.

“I think CPAP devices can get too small, and then it becomes difficult to operate them – especially if the buttons are too small to use and LCD or readouts are too small to visualize,” Richard points out. “It’s the same thing that’s happened with cell phones. Now, companies are starting to realize they need to go back to more of a moderate size.”

“Going forward, you are going to see manufacturers like [Invacare] and our competitors who are going to continue to try and push the envelope and deliver more products that meet patient ‘wants’ than we have in the past,” says Wilkinson. “Much of this is a patient ‘want,’ not a ‘must.’ We are now seeing companies capitalize on that ‘want,’ and the ones who can do that will be the long-term winners.”

MOVING FORWARD WITH MATERIALS

An emphasis on design is a top priority for many manufacturers of mobility equipment and aids to daily living. The same theory applies: People do not want institutional-looking items in their homes.

According to Harvey Diamond, president of Drive Medical, Port Washington, N.Y., a move to less institutional-looking products is a continuing trend. At the same time, he says there is the additional benefit of making products stronger, lighter and more durable.

“We’re definitely seeing that trend in bath safety products,” agrees Angela Mayfield, senior product manager for Atlanta-based Graham-Field Health Products. “We have some new products made entirely of blow-molded plastic that are very lightweight, such as a portable shower bench and tub rails, that are popular for customers who travel or are not at home regularly.

“Tool-free assembly is another huge trend for these products, and for products in other categories,” Mayfield continues. “Not only consumers but also dealers want products that don’t have to be put together, because assembly can take a lot of their time versus if the product is designed so that it can go into a relatively compact box and then can just be popped into place quickly.”

Whether manufacturers are moving away from steel and toward aluminum to construct lighter and more durable walkers or looking to improve the dynamics of power chairs, innovation is on the upswing. Miller says Pride studies the auto industry’s car designs for ideas to give users products that look stylish.

“Aesthetically, these products are a reflection of the user’s personality, so we take into consideration new engineering and new design processes,” he explains. “Our designers in [research and development] are very focused and in tune with the latest designs and incorporating the curves and the lines into these products.”

Cy Corrigan, Pride’s national sales manager for retail mobility, says design plans are comprehensive. “We look at maneuverability and portability and how the population is using the product today,” he says. “Then, we incorporate the advances seen in our industry and others into the design and into the aesthetics of the products.”

Today’s products are, more than ever before, consumer-driven, says Tom Rolick, vice president of business development for Lebanon, Tenn.-based Permobil. It’s apparent from the nitty gritty behind product technologies to the products’ brand names.

Consider Permobil’s The Street power chair. “Whenever we name a product, we try to give it some personality,” Rolick says. “‘The Street’ encourages individuals to get out and do things. It seemed to fit.”

THE PRICE OF IMPROVEMENTS

Although new technology usually costs more, finding ways for patients or caregivers to buy what they need – and only what they need – could help reduce costs, Rolick explains.

In the past, if a patient required a complex seating configuration, he had no choice but also to buy a bells-and-whistles mobility base, even though he might have no need for it. “Our development is all consumer-driven,” Rolick says. “From that perspective, [we] integrate the entire system so that there is no compromise in seating while matching up the mobility needs.

“Our goal is to optimize seating and mobility,” he continues. “Technology has allowed us to interchange those components easily. That produces the best [patient] outcomes, because economically it makes sense and functionally it makes sense.”

“It is really a question of how the industry can take advantage of technological developments seen in other industries and apply that to both improve the quality of care and the standard of care, while at the same time, hopefully, improving profitability for the providers,” concludes Deane.

Onstage at Medtrade

This time of year, it is always exciting to see what home medical equipment manufacturers have been working on, since many companies introduce their new products at the Medtrade fall show. The following are only a few of the latest consumer-friendly designs that show attendees will see.

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Drive Medical will showcase its newly designed bath chair that will feature a teak wood seat – a departure from the norm, according to President Harvey Diamond. Among the other 50 new products Drive will offer at the show are its Clever-Lite walker, with a two-in-one wheel design that can be changed from a fixed to a swivel design, and several respiratory products.

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Graham-Field has added the John Bunn Nebulite LT to its line, which Angela Mayfield, senior product manager, describes as “smaller, lighter and quieter.” The trend toward portability in respiratory products, particularly with nebulizers, she says, “has a lot to do with working moms and kids in daycare, and also caregivers who have to transport children or other patients.”

The company will also launch a new Lumex patient transfer device at Medtrade that is “innovative and unique, and extremely portable compared to most traditional or smaller lifts,” says Mayfield.

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Inogen will demonstrate the Inogen One, its lightweight, portable oxygen concentrator that will be available in the United States beginning Oct. 1. Designed to perform as both a stationary and a portable device, Inogen says the system is engineered to meet the changing demands of the oxygen industry. For patients, the device presents an opportunity for a more active life both at home and on the road.

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Invacare will offer a smaller model of its Venture HomeFill II home oxygen system, called the ML4. The weight of the current model is about 4.3 pounds in the bag, but this version weighs just over 3.5 pounds, according to Scott Wilkinson, the company’s group product manager of respiratory. Wilkinson says Medtrade attendees will also see a preview of Invacare’s redesigned aerosol therapy product line.

The company will debut a micro, portable version of its Zoom HMV. The model 220 highly maneuverable vehicle has a direct-connect battery pack and a take-apart design that makes it easy to stow in a car trunk.

Available in candy red and deep blue colors, Invacare’s new At’m Take Along power wheelchair (for customers who want to “get up and at’m”) is lightweight and compact enough to transfer in and out of a vehicle with no lift. The chair can be disassembled – or put together – with no tools. Consumers can open the seat, snap it on the base and add the battery.

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Permobil will be showing a full range of new seating and mobility products, including The Street power chair and the new Co-Pilot control, a pressure-activated handlebar that attaches to the back of a power chair. According to Tom Rolick, vice president of business development, caregivers often try to drive a power chair by walking beside it – awkwardly – and using the chair’s joystick. The Co-Pilot allows caregivers to drive from behind. The controller predicts what direction the caregiver wants to go using pressure sensors on the handlebar itself.

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Pride Mobility Products will launch the Jazzy 1107 – a highly maneuverable power chair that disassembles – and the Go-Go Travel Lift, a trunk-installed lift designed to lift 130-pound weight-capacity products. The company also will release products at the show that incorporate “brand new technology that is just going to be very impressive,” according to Mark Miller, vice president of marketing.

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ResMed will present the Swift nasal pillow interface, “which is a whole new approach to getting a good fit while still being very non-intrusive,” says Ron Richard, vice president of marketing for the Americas.

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“Sunrise Medical will be unveiling several new products and technologies that will range from a revolutionary lightweight wheelchair that will set the standard in terms of adjustability and weight to a sneak preview of a key partnership that will enable advances in power wheelchairs,” according to Pieter Leenhouts, vice president of marketing.

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