- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 21, 2003

Medical-equipment manufacturers are expanding the size of their products to accommodate an increasingly obese population.

Hospitals, nursing homes and home caregivers are pushing up demand for extra-large wheelchairs, stretchers, free-standing commodes and beds to fit more people who are severely obese, or roughly 100 pounds overweight.

That population has quadrupled since 1986 to one in 50 adults, according to a Rand Corp. study.

About 30 percent of the nation’s adults were obese in 2000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We’re definitely seeing an increase in the number of manufacturers and products that are addressing needs of obese people,” said Gary Gilbreti, president of Chesapeake Rehab Equipment Inc., a Baltimore distributor of home medical equipment.

Companies making products that go beyond the traditional 250-to-300-pound limit have grown from about two to about 10 nationwide in the past three years, Mr. Gilbreti said.

The increase in bariatric medical products is not surprising, said Allen Steadham, executive director of the International Size Acceptance Association, an Austin, Texas, advocacy group for obese people.

“We have seen the public getting larger for some time. The medical industry, like many others, is just adapting to that change,” he said.

For example, standard wheelchairs, which have 18-inch-wide seats, were the norm for people with disabilities until several years ago, when more manufacturers began making wheelchairs with 22-to-24-inch seats.

But while the extra-large wheelchair may be roomier and more comfortable for an obese person, its larger size makes it difficult to navigate through narrow doorways and small spaces.

Ambulance stretchers also have received a structural boost. Stryker Corp., a Kalamazoo, Mich., manufacturer of medical and surgical products, initially made ambulance stretchers to hold up to 500 pounds. That limit was increased in the past two years to 650 pounds.

The upgrade “is a response to the growing level of obesity to some degree,” said Dean Bergy, the company’s vice president and chief financial officer.

Stryker also updated its hospital in-patient transport stretchers with motorized systems to prevent back injuries from moving heavier patients.

Hill-Rom Co., a Batesville, Ind., subsidiary of Hillenbrand Industries Inc., presented a new hospital bed for obese people in April, the fifth company product geared toward that market.

The bed holds up to 500 pounds, has a motorized transport system as well as a cooling system for obese patients, who tend to sweat more easily, said spokeswoman Kimberly Pipton.

Plus-size orders for hospital-patient gowns also have shot up, said Ronnye Shamam, president of Shamron Mills Ltd., a patient gown and scrub-suit company in New York.

About 50 percent to 65 percent of its patient-gown sales are extra large to 10X, Ms. Shamam said.

“It’s not one size fits all anymore, it’s one size fits most. People laugh, but it’s not funny,” she said.

Several manufacturers said they don’t expect climbing obesity rates to slow anytime soon.

“I think the growth for bariatric products will be across-the-board in the hospital, nursing home and home-care markets,” said Jack Bowser, president for the durable medical-equipment division at Medline Industries Inc., a Mundelein, Ill., medical and surgical product company.

While obesity-related products make up only 5 percent of Medline’s total sales, Mr. Bowser predicted that the category will grow to provide 10 percent of sales in the next year.

“Demand for bariatric goods was very sporadic from 1996 to 2000, but it has spiked after that and shows no sign of stopping,” he said.

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