Plumping up profits
Companies of all sizes are rushing to market products aimed at an increasingly obese population
Amanda Campbell, a registered nurse in Hudson, Fla., knows how humiliating it can be for obese patients to struggle with skimpy hospital gowns or to stand in a doctor's waiting room because the chairs are too snug to sit on. Before stomach-reducing surgery in August 2002, Campbell lugged 265 pounds on her 5-foot, 8-inch frame. Now 130 pounds lighter and a trim size 6, the 46-year-old director of Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point's bariatric, or obesity-treatment, program is an empathetic advocate for oversize patients. "Please get some [larger] patient gowns, get some extra-large blood pressure cuffs, get some scales that can weigh these patients," she urges her healthcare colleagues.
For years, obese Americans have endured second-class treatment at the hands of a one-size-fits-all healthcare system. Severely overweight people sometimes postponed needed care simply to avoid the embarrassment of being weighed. With scales topping out at 300 or 350 pounds, "You had to take a patient down to the loading dock," explains Sandy Wise, senior director for medical services at Novation, a hospital supply services company in Irving, Texas. The heavy-duty scales hospitals use for weighing shipments doubled as patient scales. They got the job done, but in a way that made patients feel like cargo.
Medical crisis. Today, about 127 million American adults and more than 9 million children and teens are considered overweight or obese. The ranks of the "morbidly obese" --people weighing 100 pounds or more over their ideal weight--quadrupled between 1986 and 2000, from 1 in 200 adults to 1 in 50, according to a Rand Corp. study.
While that presents the country with a profound medical crisis--excess weight is associated with increased risk for heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and other chronic conditions--for some businesses, it is a marketing opportunity as they develop products aimed at the obese. "There's no disease state in existence that represents such a large market," says Edward Bernstein, executive director of the North American Association for the Study of Obesity.
Spending on obesity-related medical costs in the United States reached an estimated $75 billion in 2003, of which taxpayers paid about half through Medicare and Medicaid. Private employers are absorbing roughly $13 billion a year in costs due to obesity, including medical claims, absenteeism, and the expense of replacing workers who become disabled. Meanwhile, medical equipment companies are rushing to fill the void with supersized products, including generously proportioned blood-pressure cuffs, long-tooled surgical instruments (for slicing through thicker amounts of tissue), wider, more durable commodes, and, yes, sturdier scales that yield accurate readings for people weighing hundreds of pounds. Drug and device makers are tackling obesity, too, but in a different way. Instead of accommodating the nation's expanding girth, they're developing products to help whittle people's waistlines. "I think we'll see both trends continuing," says Morgan Downey, executive director and CEO of the American Obesity Association. "It's just a reflection of where our population is at this point and how we come to grips with it."
Extra large. Suppliers of everything from gowns and gloves to walkers and waiting room furnishings are beefing up their offerings. Medline Industries, the nation's largest privately held manufacturer and distributor of medical supplies, has four new bariatric products in the works, including a wheelchair that can take a beating, even under the weight of a 600-pound occupant. Medline has seen a brisk uptick in sales. Three years ago, its obesity product line rang up $50,000 a month, says Travis Winegarner, a senior product manager at the Mundelein, Ill., company. "Now we're seeing half a million a month, and that's just in 2 1/2, three years," he says.