Seeking common virtual ground

Saturday, May 31, 2003

LAS VEGAS — The chances that HME providers will be able to place orders from inside their business software systems brightened somewhat last month as the nation’s leading manufacturers of home medical equipment met here to discuss standardization issues.

The meeting was the first concerted effort in three years to work the kinks out of the once ballyhooed cyberline, which would link an HME’s software system to a manufacturer’s order intake system. If manufacturers can agree to certain standards — i.e. common category names, standard units of measure, JPEG or GIF — then HME providers may begin to use the Internet to place orders without having to re-do the data entry that’s required today.

“If we could ever get to the point where everyone called the same thing the same thing, it would be enormously helpful from a technology perspective,” said Mark Kulik, senior vice president of sales and marketing at CareCentric.

BConnected, a Colorado software vendor that currently facilitates the purchase ordering between Rotech and its major vendors, hosted the May 7 meeting that included representatives from Invacare, Pride Mobility Products, ResMed, Respironics and Sunrise Medical. These same vendors tried to find common ground in 2000, when the cyberline was last in vogue, but the initiative fell apart.

Some blame that failure on grandiose vendor plans for a digital marketplace as proposed by other vendor groups in other industries. Many of those business models fell apart during the dot-com implosion.

Today, the HME industry’s vendors are lowering their sights to a simple goal: more online ordering. Between EDI and online ordering, Invacare is now fielding 26% of its order electronically. Steve Neese, Invacare’s vice president of customer service and e-commerce, said that percentage represents the typical realm of early adopters.

“In order to get to the big universe [of HME providers], we’ve got to come up with a solution,” said Neese. “Right now they don’t see the value proposition.”

Other manufacturers cite similar ‘early adopter’ percentages and agree integration is key to getting over the hump to the wider dealer base.

While there’s plenty of value proposition for manufacturers as is, that same proposition is not yet in existence for the provider.

“Going to all these Web sites and entering an order doesn’t really save them a lot of time because they have to turn around and enter that same info into their back-end system,” said Neese.

But if the industry’s major manufacturers can see eye to eye on naming conventions, units of measure and other catalog issues, the industry’s software vendors can then integrate a relatively unsophisticated technology solution.

“We could do something now with no one helping,” said Kulik. “The problem is it becomes a one-off solution. We’d have an Invacare, then Sunrise, then Pride and so on. You would have to maintain that many interfaces, which doesn’t sound like a big deal until you realize they have product updates all the time, and pricing changes.”

If the manufacturers find common ground, all those changes could be made invisibly.

“We’d keep an item master on an FTP server,” said Neese, “and anytime anyone sent us a transaction, it would, while you were connected, check the last time you logged in, see what’s changed since, and download any changes.”

As a first step, bConnected is proposing that the vendors establish a committee and put their — the vendors — stamp on it.

“We are a very interested party, but we’re just one faciliator,” said Frank Bergen, bConnected’s president. “That stamp won’t have anything to do with our brand at all.” HME