Wealth of referral sources in compression/orthotics market

Wednesday, July 31, 2002

Pick just about any clinician in the medical community and chances are that person is a referral source for compression garments and orthopedic soft goods. What's more, some new titles are cropping up that are tailor-made for these markets.

As a result, an industrious sales representative like Tracy Sempowich has found unlimited potential for building a strong compression and orthotics business.

"I see more than 400 physicians in all disciplines," said Sempowich, director of marketing for Sun Coast Pharmacy and Surgical Supplies in Boca Raton, Fla. "Because of the cross-over applications, we literally fit all areas."

Indeed, providers in both markets say the expanding applications of compression garments and orthopedic soft goods have not only widened the referral base for these items, but have helped forge new marketing strategies based on patient conditions.

"Depending on your definition, the compression therapy business can include up to six clinical areas and 12 referral source groups," noted Ken Sandler, president of St. Louis-based Medical West.

Basically, patient conditions can be broken down into categories, he said: general vascular conditions, lymphedema, burn scar management, post-operative care, wound care and maternity. Each has its own subset of clinicians and patient care techniques, Sandler said.

For instance, burn scar management requires custom compression garments and a cooperative care effort between clinicians and the provider, Sandler said. "We are part of the burn care team in our area," he said. "We see the patient at the burn care center, fit the custom garments and follow that patient for 18 to 24 months after the burn. We provide compression for every area of the body, whether it be a stocking, sleeve, glove, face mask or vest. We also have burn care therapists to work with the patient."

The referral source base isn't limited to clinicians, either, added Dianna Nobles, clinical coordinator for Medical West's sister company, Compass Healthcare in Atlanta.

"We are going to the Kaisers and United Healthcares and educating them about the value of these products," she said. "Payers often hear about the diagnoses, but often don't really know what it means. So we go to them and show them examples of product efficacy. Once they see the severity of vascular conditions and edema, they are more willing to increase their coverage."

Compass is also working with obstetricians and gynecologists to increase their referrals for compression garments, which has historically been somewhat of a tough sell in that community, she said.

"They think they're too hot and too hard to put on, but we say 'Give the patients a choice,'" Nobles said. "Pregnancies - especially the second and third - can cause varicosities."

Sempowich has faced the same objections and regularly models the compression stockings for referral sources. "I've had a baby, so I can speak from firsthand experience that they keep the leg swelling down," she said.

New referral sources are emerging as key contacts for compression garments and orthotics as well, providers say. Wound, ostomy and continent nurses (WOCNs) at private wound clinics are one example.

"These are nurse specialists trained to deal with wound care," Sandler said. "And there are a lot of independent wound clinics out there."

Another new referral source is the manual lymph drainage (MLD) therapist, trained specifically for massaging lymphedema patients.

"We are a lymphedema resource center, so we employ those people as well," Sandler said.

Ginger Davis, co-owner of Buffalo, N.Y.-based Sheridan Surgical, says she has seen more cardiologists becoming referral sources for compression garments.

"They have climbed on board over the last couple of years," she said. "They now realize that these products are effective in helping their patients with high blood pressure."

The wide diversity of referral sources also means there is a multitude of preferences for products and services, providers say. In order to accommodate this varied demand, Davis says her company tries to fulfill every specification a referral source requires.

"Whether it be knee-high, waist-high or custom-fit, we try to help them," she said. "Physicians aren't as brand-specific as they are performance-specific. They know which styles and compression types they want."

Likewise, Sempowich says Sun Coast will bend over backward to deliver what their referral sources want.

"We'll stock anything as long as we have someone who wants it," she said. "We try to stay in tune with our physician preferences. It's part of our philosophy that we don't just sell products off the shelf - we are a complete homecare provider."

Physicians typically want more than just the right products for their patients, though, sources said. Compression garment and orthopedic patients also need specialized care as well.

"Physicians want to send their patients to a place where there are certified fitters," Davis said. "They don't want patients coming back to them because a provider improperly fitted them or gave them the wrong product."

The increasing acceptance referral sources have shown for the compression and orthopedic markets also seems to be migrating to the provider side, with hospitals setting up their own supply businesses. Spartanburg, S.C.-based That Special Look is an example of a hospital-owned enterprise.

"The trend is for hospitals to delve into specialized areas like compression garments and orthotics," said Jane Hall, coordinator of services for That Special Look. "They are creating their own boutiques and retail centers so they can serve their patients who need those specific services." HME