Friday, February 28, 2003

When any of the HME industry’s
manufacturers launch stand-out new products, the trade press comes calling. When Johnson & Johnson launches a new product, the Wall Street Journal calls.

Three years ago in the summer of 1999, the WSJ unveiled J&J’s plans for the iBot wheelchair. No matter what you say about the application of that technology to this industry, it’s a fantastic story. Consider the angles: The iBot was invented by a reclusive genius. The wheelchair climbs stairs! That kind of technology turns everybody’s heads.

The WSJ didn’t provide the same depth of coverage to the launch of J&J’s first wheelchair, the power-assist iGlide, which rolls into the market his month. However, it was the kind of coverage that Invacare or Pride Mobility Products or Sunrise Medical would have loved.

The iGlide will only serve a niche in the rehab market. If the WSJwas truly prescient, and was writing about home medical technology that is having an impact, they would have written about the impact of Pride’s Jazzy in the geriatric mobility. If they wanted to write about power-assist wheelchairs, they could have written about Invacare’s power-assist chairs in Europe, or Frank Mobility’s power assist technology in the States. Sunrise Medical launched a power-assist chair at Medtrade last fall, but the WSJmissed it.

We can’t blame the Journal. And in fact, for the same reason that WSJ picked up on the iGlide - J&J is big, BIG!, and leverages that size with a well-oiled PR machine - there’s reason to believe that J&J’s entry into the wheelchair market may help dealers. There’s no code for power-assist chairs at Medicare today. J&J, with all the muscle that comes from having a $150 billion market cap, might squeeze one out of SADMERC. In that case, everybody wins.

But if J&J, which is going direct to the consumer with this chair and the iBot, is developing more products for this market - and it says it is - there’s reason to pay real attention. It’s easy to be skeptical about J&J’s first two products, and reason to be skeptical about attempts to build a direct to end-user marketing model when the reimbursement codes are as dicey as they are for power assist and stair-climbing wheelchairs. But J&J’s market cap is about $150 billion, and they’ve spent $150 million in the wheelchair market R&D already. Skeptics can’t ignore that. HME