Marketing Mobility

Refocusing on Riders

In the mobility industry, we are all charged with trying to find solutions for some of life’s most basic needs: mobility and independence. Regardless of whether we are manufacturers, clinicians or providers, we all must put the needs of chair riders first.

It is easy to get distracted from that basic goal — after all, we work in a complicated world of reimbursement and profit margins.

Although we face challenges imposed by the noisy regulatory environment at the state and federal levels, the goal in the world of mobility seems quite similar to that of other consumer products: We are tasked with developing innovative solutions to serve a specific need. My past work experience is in the consumer products and retail industries, connecting end-users with products, services or solutions that offer a needed benefit. Now I get to pursue my personal passion of marketing and developing products that serve a specific purpose. That purpose in this case happens to be an individual’s ability to be mobile. In the spectrum of needs (and not to mention Maslow’s hierarchy), this one is pretty basic and essential. So now instead of end-users, I think in terms of riders and how to develop and market products in the complicated landscape of reimbursement in the United States.

Creating a Rider-centric Model

Mobility is no different than consumer electronics or fast-moving consumer goods — the consumer (or in this case, rider) is always king. Products and services should be designed with the same end goal in mind. That goes for everyone from the engineering and marketing departments at manufacturers like Invacare to the ATPs or RTS’s at the provider’s facilities. We should all be working towards making sure that every single solution designed, manufactured, ordered and delivered gives the rider the maximum level of independence, comfort and mobility that can be achieved.

From a manufacturer’s perspective, that means designing, manufacturing and marketing innovative manual wheelchairs that have a long list of required attributes. A chair should be easy to use, easy to service and hold up to the rigors of everyday use. I can’t forget that a chair should also look good. This is key. A wheelchair is an extension of one’s body, an orthosis, so aesthetics should not be forgotten. It also needs to be sold at a price that is affordable for both the provider and the consumer. Finally, it needs to be reimbursable. There are often attributes listed above that get left out when a chair is designed and sold.

Providers should be focused on making sure the equipment selection meets the needs identified by a clinician, as well as the rider themselves. Whether it’s a first-time rider or someone’s fourth chair, measurements and component choices should be driven by what will make the rider the most comfortable and most efficient in their chair. The perfect chair fit is not just about the measurements (although those are important) — it has to do with selecting the best product for a particular situation and making the right component choices.

Personal Journeys

Prior to joining Invacare, the industry surrounding mobility products was relatively foreign to me. My only exposure was through my immediate family.

About 10 years ago, my father suffered a series of debilitating strokes, and I learned the differences among OT, PT and ST while stumbling with my mother and siblings through my father’s recovery and rehab experiences. I have visited facilities and providers all over the country since I started in my position and am alarmed at how often something has to be sacrificed to get equipment for a rider — like selecting a model based on what will be covered by the patient’s insurance or because of the familiarity of the order form.

Chair selection is often limited by insurance, but that is nothing new. This is why it is critical to offer a range of mobility solutions at a range of price points. With material technology and the benefits of economies of scale, it is possible to develop lower-cost solutions that still offer the configurability and range of options required for an individual’s needs. At Invacare and Top End, we have been working this year to expand our custom manual offering so that we have more products in different niches, at both the high and low ends of the price spectrum.

About six months ago, I had a chance to meet a young woman, Molly, in Tampa, Fla., who was injured about 18 months before in a car accident. A single mother of two young children, Molly’s energy and her determination to, as she put it, “move on with her life” struck me. But I was alarmed when I learned because of insurance or lack thereof, she was still using a loaner chair and still had no permanent chair.

I couldn’t even imagine what it would feel like to be in her situation. As a quadriplegic, she was sitting in a chair that was 2" too wide and had virtually no seat slope. She could barely reach the wheels, let alone propel them. After spending some time figuring out what type of chair she needed and how she could get one, she is finally getting her own chair: a chair that fits her, and one that she will actually be able to propel. I am amazed at the things I have learned so far about the many facets of mobility, but I am even more astonished by how a story like Molly’s has affected me.

This is what this industry is all about — helping people get back to living normal and independent lives. Life doesn’t stop just because you are sitting down.

This article originally appeared in the April 2011 issue of Mobility Management.

About the Author

Sarah Abbott is the associate business manager for custom manual wheelchairs in the rehab division at Invacare Corp. She received her MBA in 2009 from Weatherhead School of Management, where she concentrated in strategic management and marketing. While attending business school, Sarah worked for 3M Company in St. Paul, Minn., as a strategic marketing analyst, working across multiple divisions.

Mobility Management Podcast