Rising obesity continues to feed bariatric market

Thursday, August 25, 2011

America's expanding waistlines show no sign of slowing down anytime soon, so the market for bariatric products remains strong, manufacturers say. An increasing number of expansive, heavy-duty products are being made for an emerging demographic that includes both genders and all ages, from pediatrics to geriatrics.

Today, nearly one-third of all adults are considered obese and that rate is rising. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, six states had an obesity rate of over 30% in 2008. Two years later, there were 12 states with an obesity rate greater than 30%. Current obesity rates are 32% for men and 36% for women. By 2020, the CDC estimates that 70% of the population will be overweight.

"This market is still growing significantly for us," said Lawrence de la Haba, senior vice president of business development for Atlanta-based Graham-Field Health Products. "In almost every product category--wheelchairs, patient lifts and specialty seating--the demand for extra-wide and heavy-duty products is much greater than for so-called standard products."

Graham-Field has been raising the weight capacity of many of its products, de la Haba said, with bariatric models in each category to give providers a complete selection of products with a specific category. The company also recently introduced a new folding bariatric commode because of the popularity of its standard folding commode.

Because a widening number of bariatric products are becoming available, HME providers interested in serving this market should consider handling as many as possible across different categories in mobility, bath safety and aids-to-daily living, vendors say.

"I frequently hear providers tell us their customers want to minimize the number of vendors they purchase from and would like to be able to get as many products from one source as possible," said Steve Cotter, president of Bryan, Ohio-based Gendron. "Therefore it would be wise for providers to carry a full line of bariatric products."

Mike Sedlak, global product development manager of beds and furnishings for Elyria, Ohio-based Invacare, also recommends that providers become full-line bariatric specialists.

"To the extent that the provider can be a one-stop source for bariatric products is a big advantage with today's busy referral sources," he said. "If you consider a 'typical' patient, there might be a need for a bariatric bed, bariatric wheelchair, rollator, lift, bariatric shower chair and commode. The list goes on and on."

Market challenges

One of the most significant challenges providers face with bariatrics is the training of caregivers, patients and family members, de la Haba said.

"Injuries to both caregivers and patients can easily occur if equipment is not properly utilized," he said. "Transfers in and out of bed, from a wheelchair to a commode, are much more difficult due to the increase in weight and mass that need to be moved. Another challenge is to make sure that the staff is informed of the differences in equipment, weight capacity and features that are then reflected in the proper billing of the equipment."

The staff also needs to know the weight and size limitations of the equipment they are selling, de la Haba said. The physical dimensions, as well as the weight, needs to be taken into consideration, he said, so the proper fit of the equipment can be made.

To be sure, deciding to be in the bariatric market can be a mixed blessing for providers, Sedlak said.

"While the market conditions appear favorable from a business aspect, the expense of doing business is greater," he said. "Due to increased performance requirements, the products simply cost more to produce and consequently purchase. Consider beds for example. The standard homecare bed is 36 inches wide.  A bariatric bed starts at 39 inches wide but can go as large as 60 inches. Not only does this take up more space in the warehouse and truck, but it typically will require an additional person to set it up in a patient's home."

Sensitivity training

Dealing with obese patients requires a certain tact and staff need to be trained how to speak properly with them, said Julie Pello, director of sales for Exeter, Pa.-based Quantum Rehab.

"Be acutely aware and sensitive," she said. "Be aware of meeting that individual's needs when considering the right equipment for that person. Patients can gain and lose weight. There are many things to consider, including the patient's health, environment and finances."