O2 providers: Knowledge is power with conservers

Thursday, January 31, 2002

Although oxygen conservers and regulators aren't brand-new technology, their usage has grown considerably in the past couple years, respiratory providers say. That dramatic upturn, they contend, presents an opportunity to forge closer relationships with referral sources.

In fact, conservers may actually help solidify the respiratory provider's role as equipment expert in the home healthcare continuum as more physicians, nurses and case managers inquire about prescribing them for patients. Those with the clinical, technical and fiscal answers are reporting a substantial boost in referrals.

Following liquid oxygen, conservers will be the fastest growing segment of the oxygen therapy devices market, according to healthcare research firm Frost & Sullivan. In a recent report on the U.S. oxygen devices market, F&S found that the industry generated revenues of $259 million in 2000 and is on a course to reach $352 million by 2007.

F&S's data projects that the conserver market will grow consistently over the next seven years. By 2007, researchers estimate that approximately 60-75% of patients will be using portable oxygen units, and that conserving device usage could represent from 30% to 50% of that total.

Denny Venuto, co-owner of RTA Home Medical in Glen Mills, Pa., acknowledges that physicians' interest in conservers is steadily growing. It's a positive trend, he said, because doctors - including pulmonologists, internal medicine specialists and general practitioners - are seeking his expertise.

"We're working in harmony with them to customize systems for their patients," he said. "If a patient is bothered by an alarm, we recommend a pneumatic conserver instead of an electronic one."

Breadth of conserver knowledge is a valuable marketing tool, Venuto says, because even though some referral sources aren't interested in the finer points of the device, others will probe deeply.

"Some referral sources just say 'Keep the patient happy and I'll be happy,' but we're also getting more technical and clinical questions from knowledgeable people," he said. "We have to be prepared for that."

While clinicians tend to ask efficacy and treatment questions, case managers are usually more interested in the cost-effectiveness of the device, Venuto said. Conservers are designed to address both types of concerns, he said - reducing oxygen flow while promoting optimal consumption rates. What's more, conservers need much smaller tanks, making it easier for patients to handle, he said.

Indeed, accurately targeting different referral source types boils down to knowing what they value when it comes to caring for respiratory patients, said Perry Sanford, branch manager for Respiratory Solutions in Austin, Texas.

In order to furnish referral sources with the answers they need, the San Antonio-based provider's strategy has been to develop a comprehensive outcomes database. By methodically collecting details about patient treatment procedures, equipment function and company performance, Respiratory Solutions has generated hard data about conservers that referral sources can't ignore.

Despite gathering reams of data though, the argument for conservers really comes down to one basic principle, Sanford says - less is more.

"If you have a patient who was using 30 tanks a month at $55 each and is now using eight with a conserver, that's a considerable savings," he said.

Regular visits with patients also yield crucial health-related information, Sanford said.

"We ask them if they've been to the ER in the past month and if so, whether they were admitted to the hospital and for what reason," he said. "If it was due to pneumonia, we try to find out the cause, such as not using the equipment properly."

By digging into a patient's experience with the equipment, the provider can then talk to the referral source about the benefits of a conserver, he said.

Sanford concedes though, that a conserver isn't appropriate for all patients.

"In most cases it works, but there are some patients who need too high a flow rate," he said. "This is the type of advice referral sources are looking for from us. That's why I'm talking to them on a daily basis."

Establishing a physical presence at hospitals and clinics and maintaining rapport with referral sources is necessary, Sanford says, not just to fortify existing bonds, but also to seek out new ones.

"New people are coming in all the time - you have to stay on top of it," he said. "It is a never-ending challenge to communicate with your referral sources and educate them."

Respiratory manufacturers can also be strong allies in marketing to referral sources. Michael Iott, general manager at Farrell's Home Health in Bremerton, Wash., says literature and sales rep visits can go a long way in promoting awareness of conservers with the clinical community.

"Marketing and promotional support is huge in a category like conservers, because no one brand stands out as being the best," Iott said.

Provider name recognition is also paramount. Iott says Farrell's identity carries a lot of weight locally.

"We're considered top dog," he said. "We have a reputation for being on the cutting edge of technology."

Hartley, Iowa is another municipality that favors patronizing hometown businesses. Brent Unrau, director of operations for Med-Equip, says that attitude gives his company the advantage with referral sources.
"This is a small town, so they'd rather deal with someone who is familiar than a national chain," he said.

Med-Equip may serve a rural area, but it's hardly a backwater when it comes to medical technology. Unrau says conserving devices are a burgeoning market category for the business.

"Up to 25% of our patients are on conservers and that growth has come mainly in the past two or three years," Unrau said. "Manufacturers have made some great improvements to the devices. By combining the conserver and regulator into one unit, it much easier for patients to figure out how to work them."

As a result, more patients are asking physicians for conservers - a big help in the marketing effort, Unrau added. HME