Looking Forward: What Clients Will Expect from the Next Generation of Power Chairs

In 2004, when I began my career with Invacare Corp., I was fresh to the industry, new to learning complex rehab and a novice at mobility equipment. Since then I have been fortunate to be a part of exciting product development projects, as well as challenging changes to the industry.

One aspect that I have found the most rewarding is understanding the needs of the consumer: the needs of the person who will be operating the power equipment, whether it is the client themselves or the caregiver. Bringing a product to market that is intuitive, innovative and responsive is critical, and I see this as a continuing need. Simplicity is key!

Efficiency & Effectiveness

Front-wheel, rear-wheel and center-wheel-drive configurations all possess their individual strengths and advantages in different environments. Offering all configurations for clients results in ultimate consumer preference. I expect that the next generation of equipment must provide maximum comfort, optimal ride quality and maximum stability in any drive configuration power base to ultimately get the client from point A to point B, efficiently and effectively.

Increasingly, the traditional tilt system is accompanied by a power recline system. Many versions of recline are available to meet the individual needs of the client and help minimize the shearing effect. Going forward, I anticipate improvements in recline systems to make the shearing effect as minimal as possible. I also expect to see more innovation with elevating seat designs and increasing trends with standing systems to help gain our clients the ability to have greater access to their environment. What potential power seating systems will be created next to gain our clients better accessibility to more in their environment?

Also, able-bodied consumers enjoy the benefit of memory seating in vehicles; now our clients can enjoy the benefits of memory seating while in their power wheelchairs. By a single switch hit, the power seating system can advance to a pre-selected tilt, recline and power leg extension, achieving the maximum pressure relief.

I see modularity as a key requirement moving forward — the ability to add items to the chair or easily modify or adapt the chair as needs progress.

Giving Consumers More Control

Having better access to the environment will continue to increase as we advance with technology. Utilizing environmental controls such as infrared technology or mouse emulation to operate televisions, radios, lights, garage doors, temperature controls, augmentative communication and mobile devices is a more common offering now. We are a society that has become dependent upon technology, and making ourselves accessible wherever we go, and so we too need improved accessibility to our environment.

The greatest area of advancement in the past few years has been in the arena of electronics. Wow, how the joystick options have changed and improved to be more user-friendly and ergonomic. With such a large sampling of driver control options, clients can operate their chair via their head, their air puffs, their eyes, their chin and their feet. The necessity for driver controls to do more than drive the chair is an expectation. Driver controls should function as hands and gain the client access to all in their environment including mobile devices, tablets, computers, etc.

Also we've seen improvements to drive tracking performance. Through the use of gyroscopes, we've improved the tracking ability and have minimized the need for veer corrections for clients. This ultimately results in less fatigue for consumers.

A few years ago transport brackets on power chairs was not a common option, and today many power mobility manufacturers crash-test bases. This is another example of making power chairs more accessible to everyday environments. Manufacturers are also recognizing the need for lighting packages on chairs. Lighting options provide the client the ability for the power wheelchair to be seen at night.

Based on Customers' True Needs

One important aspect of bringing the right product to market is actively listening and engaging with customers and conducting field research. It's critical to always be looking forward at trends and where we think the market will shift. Where can we go next with technology and access to improve our equipment offering? This activity is our ultimate responsibility as manufacturers to develop products based upon our customers' true needs. With the everchallenging and changing reimbursement environment, we must continue to develop products that meet the clinical needs of our clients and offer them the best possible product offering.

One of my most memorable experiences was during a field evaluation of a new pediatric power chair we introduced. To see the child traverse obstacles that were impossible previously, to see the child utilize a power seat elevator to reach a countertop, to see the child drive at a faster speed to keep up with peers was truly inspiring. To see the mother watch her son smile, laugh and engage was lasting.

The best part of this journey has been being a part of a culture that brings products that can improve someone's life, modality or access to their environment to fruition. There's only more exciting developments to come.

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

About the Author

Julie Jackson is director of the rehab business unit for Invacare Corp.

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