If “rehab consumerism” as a socio-economic force in the rehab industry were a power wheelchair, it would be full speed forward! In fact, consumers with disabilities are pursuing self advocacy toward their rehab technology needs like never before. However, what exactly is “rehab consumerism,” what are the trends, and how does it change the stakes for consumers, providers, clinicians and politics alike?
A Brief History
The history of rehab consumerism ties directly into the birth and evolution of the independent living movement. With the return of so many Vietnam veterans with disabilities in the 1970s, an immediate demand for more independence through rehab technology occurred, and we soon saw dramatic innovations in manual wheelchairs with lighter-weight materials and more liberating designs.
As the 1980s came, the independent-living movement spread across North America, and as those with severe disabilities pursued educations and careers, the demand for rehab technology as a whole increased even more, spurring innovation. In the 1990s, with the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), social inclusion for those with disabilities further expanded, and once again the consumer demand for innovative, liberating rehab products grew. However, it wasn’t until the 2000s that a perfect storm truly ushered in the age of “rehab consumerism.”
Dramatic innovations in rehab technology during the 1980s and 1990s culminated in an astounding array of liberating product choices in the 2000s, and with choice comes “consumerism.” Furthermore, we witnessed the fi rst generation of those with disabilities come of age in a post-ADA, socially inclusive, Web-savvy culture. As a result, many with disabilities were online, researching and sharing information, not just around the country, but around the globe.Rehab technology was no longer a discussion between an end user and a provider, but it was then also a discussion between peers with input from many sources. Therefore, while rehab consumerism today may seem a relatively recent shift in the marketplace, it’s a trend that was decades in the making: a synergy of social change, technological evolution and product innovation that has transformed many aspects of selecting rehab technology from that of a medical model to that of a consumer model.
What Rehab Consumers Crave
Although the ultimate goal of each rehab consumer is enhanced independence and quality of life through vital technologies, consumerism is fundamentally driven by a quest for information and knowledge, and it’s being sought at a voracious pace. Whereas consumers were once content with seeing a glossy brochure in a provider’s showroom, they’re now online researching products long before ever speaking with their providers. They visit manufacturers’ Web sites not just for glossy product photos, but to review technical specifi cations, order forms, and owner’s manuals. They jump on YouTube and search for product videos. And they use online social media to converse with peers to gain insight into real-world user experience with products. Then consumers head to their provider with a wealth of knowledge, truly “shopping” for the best rehab technology, seeking to try multiple products before buying.
Indeed, when it comes to rehab consumerism, there’s a neverending quest for product information, and the rehab industry is increasingly meeting the demand. Manufacturers and providers alike are constantly enhancing their Web sites toward the information consumers crave. Multiple product demos are no longer an occasional event, but are now a routine part of the purchase process. And, consumer-focused Web sites revolving around rehab products — with tech tips and peer reviews — are now online mainstays, major players toward infl uencing consumers’ decisions. If manufacturers and providers wish to stay in the game, they know that catering to rehab consumerism must be a big part of their business model today and moving forward.
A Challenging Beneficiary Environment
Funding cuts have proven an interesting paradox when it comes to rehab consumerism. From the most obvious perspective, one would presume the contractions in insurer funding of rehab technologies would likewise contract consumerism. After all, with less funding, it logically should force consumers more toward an accept-what-you-can-get ideology. However, we’ve seen the opposite result, where based on funding constraints, consumers see their rehab technology decisions as even more vital as every dollar counts. While frustrated by the current funding climate, rehab consumers know that their limited purchasing power is of even greater stakes toward making the right decision, so they’re extra diligent in research and product knowledge.
Just as with consumers striving to fully assess rehab technology prior to purchase, they’re likewise increasingly involved in the insurer funding process. Consumers aren’t merely satisfi ed with knowing their funding levels and accepting a given product, but want to state their case as to why a product is needed, and if denied, they wish an appeal. As benefi ciaries are proving, rehab consumerism isn’t just about product knowledge, but also personal empowerment.
Where Does Rehab Consumerism Go from Here?
As we head into the next fi ve years, rehab consumerism is poised to evolve from heavily product based to equally politically based. Through innovations in products and the marketplace, consumers have seen the impact of their voices. However, they’re now realizing that access to vital rehab technology isn’t just about product selection, but also funding availability. As a result, consumers are becoming increasingly vocal on Capitol Hill, seeking to get further involved as the ultimate stakeholders in sustaining funding toward rehab technologies.
Consumers realize, however, that while they are the ultimate stakeholders in rehab technology funding, they remain a partnership with providers, clinicians and manufacturers in the political process. We’ve seen this via increases in consumer participation in industryrelated advocacy events in recent years. This is yet another key to rehab consumerism: Consumers are looking for allies in the political process, and those in the rehab technology industry who best support consumers will unquestionably see continued customer loyalty, fostering their roles and businesses as well as embracing the rehab industry as a whole.
The Time Is Now
While rehab consumerism took three decades to emerge, it’s now in full effect and increasing in numbers as new consumers enter the marketplace. The days of limited selection and solely prescribed products are past, with today’s rehab consumer researching what he or she needs, discussing it in-depth with a provider, and finding ways to fund it, including via the political process.
What’s especially impressive is how this culmination of factors — the social, the technological, and the political — continue coming together with a synergy where everybody wins. After all, at the root of rehab consumerism are the core goals of independence and quality of life. And as consumers with disabilities continue to move into the right products, pursue support from the right industry allies, and obtain the right funding, one aspect becomes clear: We are closer than ever to equality for all.