Diversify with versatile bath safety products

Saturday, February 28, 2009

In a climate of severe reimbursement cuts and an oxygen cap, business diversification has become a must for HME providers. That’s why those who have dismissed bath safety in the past as not being worthwhile may want to take another look at the market, manufacturers say.

First off, there is more to bath safety than meets the eye. The market goes beyond decorative faucets, benches and elevated commodes into sophisticated safety concepts for mobility-challenged patients. As with other key business areas, the HME provider can assume the role of expert, serving as educator, bathroom designer, product consultant and installation contractor.

“It’s a smart strategy,” says Brad Crozier, senior product/brand manager for North Olmsted, Ohio-based Home Care by Moen. “This gives the independent a huge advantage over the big-box stores. This business is much more than just product sales, it’s about seeing the customer through the process, educating them about bath safety techniques, demonstrating how the products are used and helping them make the right product selections.”

Despite reimbursement cuts, economic indicators for bath safety are promising, Crozier said. Bath safety, he says, is an important home modification process that consumers will commit to despite curtailing spending for other things.

“The bathroom is a dangerous place and people recognize the need to make it safer,” Crozier said. “Historically, this has been a growth area and providers can have a great deal of success with it.”

Daniel Matschina, president and CEO of St. Paul, Minn.-based Bridge Medical, sees equally bright prospects for the future of its portable grab bars.

“Demand for our product line has never been stronger,” he said. “Our particular market, as niche as it is, is really in its infancy and as more and more people come to understand the technology and the freedom it provides, they are flocking to our products.”

Known for providing maximum functionality along with pleasing aesthetics, the market features various styles, such as heavy-grade bariatric versions. Moen has created bath safety models especially for patients with specific conditions, such as hand-held shower fixtures with special grips and straps to assist those with arthritis or multiple sclerosis. Pediatrics is another potential product line.

“While bath safety is aimed mainly at the elderly, I have two young sons who could use bath grips to get in and out of the tub,” Crozier said. “We want to make the bath safe for everyone.”

Institutional sales

Bath safety has another supply chain dimension to it that very few providers explore - serving as a supplier of institutional-grade products for acute care and long-term care facilities. Specifically, patient lifts and transfer devices are always needed in hospitals, skilled nursing facilities and senior living centers.

Santa Fe Springs, Calif.-based Columbia Medical, makers of a sliding bath transfer system, are looking to bolster their distribution networks for the institutional market, said Rachel de Leon, marketing manager.

“This is an opportunity for providers,” she said. “On my agenda is getting the word out about how nursing homes and assisted living centers are potential customers and how providers could serve as distributors for these products.”

To be sure, bath safety’s versatility is one of its primary strengths, said Dale Nash, vice president of sales and marketing for Columbia, S.C.-based ActiveCare Medical.

“Bath safety products have a unique opportunity - not only is it a cash item, but it serves a wide range of clientele,” he said. “It, of course, serves the needs within our markets of home care, long-term care and acute care, but can also serve a wide range of users as an assistive device to those ‘able bodied’ individuals who need a little help in safely navigating their bathroom.”

Battling economic woes

The HME industry’s struggles with reimbursement cuts are only compounded by the malaise affecting the rest of the economy. Is conservative consumer spending taking a toll on the bath safety sector?

“It has impacted everything else and I doubt that bath safety products are exempt,” Nash said. “But providers have the ability, through marketing and media, to expand their market to include new customers, serving different needs with the same type of safety products. It comes down to understanding specific needs and making the product available to fill those needs.”

Likewise, Matschina says a slowdown in sales has not been discernable at this point.

“We have not heard from any of our direct suppliers that demand has dropped off for our product,” he said. “Of course, we are hearing that consumers are being careful with their purchases, but at this point, our business is up from 2008 already.”