Marketing Mobility

Making Complex Rehab Simple

This past weekend, I did something I never thought I would do: I fixed my own washing machine. It was a daunting task, since I'm not what one would call "handy," but I wanted to save myself some money — and so I took a shot.

My trepidation for the project was just based on a perception that this job was only for an expert equipped for technical jobs like this one. As it turns out, I didn't need the original owner's manual from the decade-old washer, nor did I need to call the Maytag man and ask him to dust off his rotary phone earpiece for once.

I needed YouTube.

While YouTube isn't going to solve all of our frustrations, it is just one piece of many that will continue to simplify the complexity of rehab.

Taking the Complex Out of Complex Rehab?

First, let us step back and look at what makes rehab seemingly so complex. Simply stated, rehab products look intimidating. Whether it is a manual tilt-in-space wheelchair or a power wheelchair with power tilt, recline and elevate, the complexities of positioning individuals on a wheelbase small enough to maneuver inside a home, but rugged enough to handle outdoor driving in all weather conditions, leads to many static and moving parts in small packages. But the reality is that as complex as these highly engineered products are, they're quite elegant and simple.

Taking cues from automobiles, motorsports and outdoor recreation products, manufacturers use the latest design trends to create easily removable molded shrouds that protect sensitive moving parts, but also offer quick access when needed. Move under the shroud, and you may see clutter — namely nuts, bolts and wire ties — engineered out in favor of components engineered to need fewer fasteners, and common components used across multiple platforms.

Another example is the use of a global motor and gearbox platform that allows motor and gearbox to be separated. This reduces the amount of time needed for service and helps to create efficiency for service departments, ultimately returning the consumer to his or her wheelchair faster. Modularity, common components and "plug-and-play" design allow manufacturers to create better products that help to eliminate the time and cost of unknowns that all providers servicing these products must face.

The Electronics Evolution

The most visible developments that combine the rapid advancement of technology, the scale of highly technical components becoming affordable, and the ability to be innovative and simpler has been in wheelchair electronics. In the past two years this confluence of factors has allowed most manufacturers to offer color LCD display screens and include the ability to upload personal photos or select from multiple color choices for screen preferences. For the technician in all of us, some electronics systems keep a fault log that allows the consumer to report any faults over the phone to the provider, who can then offer solutions to correct the error without a service call or down time. The marvel of this feature and many like it is that in previous generations of software, not only was this not technically feasible — it was also cost prohibitive.

Built-in features like diagnostics and high-resolution color displays make previous generations look like products of the Industrial Revolution, but it's the progress we've made in allowing consumers to use their wheelchair electronics to access their environment that offers the best glimpse into the future. One might say that a theme of the future in this segment will be "What else can I do with my driver control or joystick?" Whether it is infrared, Bluetooth, mouse emulation or another environmental control (ECU), the setup, programming, operation and performance of these functions has become easier, more reliable and more cost effective. The winner in all of this, ultimately, is the consumer. Competition among manufacturers means they get innovative and more economical products faster.

Get Social!

The single-most important factor in making rehab not so complex now and in the future is the ever-shrinking gap between manufacturers, providers and consumers. The benefit a consumer derives from this gap reduction hasn't even come close to its critical mass, but in the product design, manufacturing and marketing efforts of the rehab value chain, it is already impactful. The catalyst for this is, of course, social media.

The most important life-sustaining source to a marketer of products is access to their base of customers, which social media has changed now and forever. Do the manufacturers of the wheelchairs you order have Facebook pages? Like them. Do they have Twitter feeds? Follow them. Do they have YouTube channels? Subscribe to them. Encourage the consumers you work with to do the same.

Yes, marketing organizations want to market to you, but as this relationship grows, you will have an impact on the products your clients use every day. If there are product-related items that frustrate or elate you or your customers on a daily basis, there is no better medium in which to voice your opinion, concern, suggestion or praise.

Speaking from the standpoint of a manufacturer, learning about your experience with our products is paramount to any market research. Couple that with the relatively small size of our industry, and the closeness that social media creates for us — and your voice really can lead to change.

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

About the Author

Jud Cummins is the business manager for custom power wheelchairs and powered seating at Invacare Corp.

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