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Mobility poised to power past pandemic

Mobility poised to power past pandemic

With the COVID-19 pandemic on the wane in many parts of the country, mobility manufacturers are rolling ahead with expectations of a brighter outlook for sales and distribution. 

Scooter and wheelchair specialists say demand for products stayed strong during the pandemic, but that complications from lockdowns, restrictions and a stressed healthcare system took a toll on orders and logistics. Now that restrictions are easing and society is opening up, the mobility industry is breathing a sigh of relief, said Doug Francis, president and CEO of St. Petersburg, Fla.-based Lifestyle Mobility Aids.  

“In March 2020 there was, for the first time, a real contraction of business in our industry,” he said. “This slowdown only caused a build-up of demand that is now beginning to release as more of the country begins opening up. I believe we will see elevated levels of demand for mobility products through the summer as people want to begin traveling again.” 

Growing demand spans all mobility categories, including wheelchairs, walkers, rollators, canes, crutches and knee walkers, Francis said. 

To be sure, the past year “was a difficult and challenging time from a sales standpoint,” added Jay Brislin, vice president of Exeter, Pa.-based Quantum Rehab. “We focused on working with our providers and adapting to the current environment to still ensure we were taking care of our customers and end users and supporting them at the highest level.” 

Demand is high and continues to grow as the country reopens, Brislin said.  

“In many cases, backlogs have occurred for people needing equipment and we are now seeing these individuals schedule appointments to get that equipment,” he said. “Growth is happening in all categories, especially with many of the retail product lines. During the pandemic, many people had needs for items such as a scooter or travel mobility device but did not pursue those purchases during the shutdown. Now all that is starting to change.” 

Surging demand for power mobility has companies like Dallas-based Interstate Batteries jump-starting their distribution to providers, said David Tibbals, sales development manager of national accounts. 

“Power mobility dealers that have local battery suppliers who can deliver same day or next day have the advantage to grow their customer base and retain existing customers,” he said. “Just as with your car when the battery fails, a replacement is needed immediately, not in days or weeks. Power wheelchair users depend on their batteries to maintain their mobility and quality of life. Providers who have a local supplier delivering quality batteries can get their customers up and running faster than the competition.” 

ZOOMing forward 

With so much emphasis over the past 18 months on telehealth, curbside service and other mitigation methods, the mobility industry is trying to determine what customer service will look like in the pandemic aftermath. Mobility suppliers sound confident that a “new normal” will be in place well after the COVID threat officially ends. 

“No question about it that this past year has brought about the advancement of these ‘safer’ technologies and procedures,” said John Wright, executive vice president of sales management and business development for Torrance, Calif.-based Shoprider Mobility Products. “The ZOOM format for evaluations may become a reality as face-to-face evaluations are phased out if the governing bodies will allow it.” 
Ryan Zarb, vice president of customer and technical service for Nashville-based National Seating & Mobility, adds that remote evaluations, telehealth and no- or low-contact delivery models “have streamlined the client experience and positioned us to provide a better level of service in a post-COVID world. Technology-driven care is not only here to stay, but must continue to evolve to further enhance safety, convenience and efficiency for our clients.” 

Tech conundrum 

Scooters and wheelchairs are a technology rich category, with advancements constantly in the pipeline for future development, Yet Francis says payer bureaucracy can stifle the introduction of new technology with insufficient reimbursement. 

“New technologies are surfacing constantly in the mobility sector, but in the US, unfortunately there’s a hyper focus on billing codes and coverage,” he said. “If the reimbursement rate doesn’t support the new technology, those technologies can struggle to gain momentum and acceptance.” 

Even so, Francis says there are “numerous breakthrough products” the public wants to purchase even though they aren’t covered. 

“To get consumers excited about these new products and technologies, we need to focus on marketing to them in an upbeat and positive way,” he said.  

Darren Lowman, chief supply chain officer for NSM, contends the key to the success and advancement of new technology in the power wheelchair and scooter market comes down to access and affordability. “Technology in early stages will drive cost and most reimbursement models take time to digest and accept responsibility for those costs,” he said. “Power adjustable seat height is an example of this – seat elevation has been available for years, but we’re just starting to see payer funding for this, and Medicare funding is still not in place.” 

Quantum and Pride have forged ahead with new developments and “we continue to push the envelope with products the CRT community has been asking for,” Brislin said. “These innovations cut across all aspects of our business, including power lift recliners, scooters and power wheelchairs. Both Pride and Quantum are investing in digital tools for our providers that will improve their ordering and searching capabilities and increase their productivity while in the field with patients.”


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