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New aids for infirm aren't an easy sell

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    New aids for infirm aren't an easy sell

    New aids for infirm aren't an easy sell
    Innovations: A small Maryland company is experiencing difficulty marketing its innovative devices that assist walking.
    By A Sun Staff Writer
    Originally published June 21, 2003

    Americans are aging, and so are their joints and bones.

    As rickety bones have made walking harder for millions of the elderly, countless companies have created medical devices to make getting around easier, creating a thriving industry in the process.

    Consumers spent $31.2 billion in 2000 on durable medical devices, which include artificial limbs, canes, wheelchairs, crutches, canes and hearing aids. That's nearly double the amount spent 10 years before, according to federal figures.

    Invacare Corp., the world's largest distributor of home medical equipment such as canes, walkers, wheelchairs and crutches had revenue last year of $1.09 billion.

    The growing orthopedic market has produced an appealing target for entrepreneurs producing new tools to help America's growing senior population stay mobile.

    "It certainly is a booming business," said Cheryl Henthorn, rehabilitation services manager with Summa Health Systems in Ohio.

    But innovation doesn't always mean instant success.

    Orthotic Mobility Systems, a tiny Kensington company that is pitching a new kind of cane and walker, offers an example of how difficult it is to break into this market.

    The company has created the Sure Foot Cane and the Strutter, devices it said will make it easier for the elderly and those with debilitating diseases to walk.

    The Strutter is similar to a crutch but ends in a rubber foot rather than in a point. It has U-shaped arm holes with extra padding to prevent the pain crutches can cause when used for a long time. The device is also made of lightweight aluminum rather than heavy wood, and it moves back and forth.

    Similar to a cane, the aluminum Sure Foot ends in a foot that allows for better balance and mobility.

    Both devices can be used on just about any surface, including sand and gravel.

    The Strutter is a new twist on the crutch. It has received recognition from HME News, a home medical equipment trade publication with 8,000 subscribers.

    "This brings some new technology to a market where nobody thinks about technology," said Jim Sullivan, the publication's editor.

    In contrast, there are many cane designs, which could make it harder to sell the Sure Foot Cane.

    "There are quad canes, standard canes, canes with wheels," Sullivan said. "There are so many different kinds of canes it's mind-boggling."

    The designer of both devices, Harry H. Herman, said he knows firsthand that people can benefit from his invention. An engineer by training, he created the devices and started the company a decade ago after a disastrous trip to Disney World with a broken ankle.

    He thought he'd get around fine on crutches but spent the entire time in a wheelchair.

    "It was miserable," he said. "The crutches were painful and just made me tired."

    With $100,000 in savings, he started on prototypes of the devices while working full time at his consulting firm. That was the easy part. Getting the company off the ground proved more difficult.

    Herman and his partners approached several companies to manufacture the devices but after several rejections decided to do it themselves.

    "People would ask all kinds of questions," said Philip N. Lyons, the company's vice president of sales director. "They would ask why someone would want to get out of a wheelchair and use such a device."

    The Strutter and Sure Foot Cane are sold in more than 200 hospitals, clinics, physical therapy offices, orthopedic offices and drugstores around the country. The company has also sold several of the products overseas through the Internet.

    On two recent appearances on the QVC home shopping network, 1,200 of the Sure Foot Canes were sold.

    Yet, the company still operates in the red and posted revenue of just $100,000 last year.

    Like many small companies, Orthotic Mobility doesn't have the budget to market its products, officials say.

    "Once they try it they love it," said Herman. "Our problem is getting the word out."

    It's also difficult to persuade medical professionals to look at new products.

    Physical therapists and rehabilitation specialists tend to be conservative in their orthopedic recommendations. Basic devices are cheaper and proven, they say.

    "Oftentimes, family members purchase all these gizmos and gadgets and they don't always fit the patient properly," said Karin Seeley, senior physical therapist of the spinal cord injury and trauma unit at Baltimore's Kernan Hospital.

    Many doctors and physical therapists still recommend the old-fashioned crutch, cane or walker and steer away from newer versions. Insurance companies often don't cover the full cost of trendier versions, which also tend to cost more, they said.

    "We usually just go by the old stand-by walkers, crutches and canes," Seeley said.

    Invacare, the world's largest manufacturer and distributor of home medical products, sells canes online for $20 to $55. A Sure Step cane costs $49.95 to $79.95.

    Invacare crutches cost $48 to $171. A pair of Strutters costs $475.

    Henthorn said she has seen too many patients come in with a product that doesn't help their condition.

    "Companies that promote their mobility devices sometimes take advantage of the patient and sell them a device that is not correct for them," she said. "It's not the kind of device that prevents the problem. There is a fairly high dissatisfaction problem regarding products they purchase."

    Orthotic Mobility officials say they have satisfied customers to back their products and rely on them for sales.

    The company also goes to trade shows and has gotten much of its business from people who spot somebody using the products.

    "It's an educational thing," Lyons said.

    "It's like swimming. Until you touch the cane and take two or three steps and put it in the gravel or grass you don't understand."

    The company recently gained a vital Medicare code for the Strutter that the company predicts will significantly increase sales. The code opens the door to reimbursement from insurance companies. The company is also on track to turn its first-ever profit in the next 18 months.

    But Orthotic Mobility needs more to expand, company officials said. It is trying to secure a $750,000 line of credit to help with expenses and better market its products.

    They say they know the customers are out there.

    Jeanne Tanglis, a retired physicist from Takoma Park, began using a Strutter two years ago after a bad reaction to medicine caused her to have balance problems.

    "It should have been done 100 years ago," Tanglis said. " If I can't balance on my feet, how am I going to balance on the points of two crutches."

    Copyright © 2003, The Baltimore Sun | Get home delivery

    Also see


    Harry H. Herman (Sun staff photo)
    May 6, 2003

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    I tried to e-mail you this but mail came back..

    Maybe thats what you looking for?


      Originally posted by Max:

      I tried to e-mail you this but mail came back..

      Maybe thats what you looking for?
      Thanks Max.
      I don't understand the email coming back.
      Might try

      I looked into these suppliers. Not quite what
      I am looking for. I have become quite expertise at using good old polio crutches.
      Just wanted a better crutch tip. I use
      the Guardian wide tips..Better, but still
      hydroplane on anything liquid.
      I did write to the paper that reported for
      the Japanese company. Hope to hear from them.
      Honestly have tried just about every type of
      crutch thru the decades. Always end up back
      to the old wooden ones. Much more useable in
      my opinion. The ones with the arm holes...
      never could carry anything as well.
      Thanks again.
      Life isn't about getting thru the storm but learning to dance in the rain.