Obesity rises, hospitals respond

Business booms for equipment makers catering to plus-size patients.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) -- At St. Luke's Hospital, each of the 14 new neurology intensive care rooms has a feature that's becoming standard in the health care industry: a patient lift system that can handle up to 600 pounds.
Hospital officials had the equipment installed out of safety concerns -- it can take five or six nurses to lift extremely overweight patients, said Jennifer Ball, director of patient care for medical/surgical at St. Luke's.
"I think we're seeing more [obese patients], and people are more conscientious about it," she said.
Growing need
Severely overweight people tend to have more health problems, and they often can't fit in standard beds or wheelchairs built for 300-pound people. And so the $3 billion market for hospital beds, wheelchairs and other equipment designed for plus-size patients is rapidly growing as more Americans become obese.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimate that 65 percent of American adults are overweight and 31 percent are obese.
Kinetic Concepts Inc. of San Antonio said its line of beds and accessories for obese patients took in $282 million last year, a 6 percent increase from the year before.
"There's more and more and more of these patients showing up at hospitals now," said Ron Dziedziula, director of marketing for KCI's therapeutic surfaces division.
SIZEWise Rentals of Las Vegas, which specializes in medical equipment for the obese, said its business has grown 15 percent to 20 percent a year.
"Everywhere, there's this awareness of obesity," said chief operating officer Trever Frickey.
Health care providers are calling companies such as KCI and SIZEWise for beds built to support up to 1,000 pounds and wheelchairs that are 32 inches or wider.
The equipment often costs much more than its regular counterparts. A typical hospital bed can cost $2,000, but a reinforced bed for heavier patients can cost $6,000 or more.
"Everything has to be custom," said DuWayne Kramer, president of Kansas City, Kan.-based Burke Mobility Products, a key manufacturer. "You have to be thinking in a different way for everything."
Safety of hospital staff
Kramer said that in the past, hospital staff was forced to improvise in order to care for severely overweight patients.
"People were welding beds together or putting beds on the floor," he said. "When we first got into this [in 1979], there was nothing out there."
The equipment can be a blessing for hospital staff, who have the third-highest rate of injuries or illnesses among industries with 100,000 or more reported cases, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many of those injuries come from lifting and moving patients, an activity made more dangerous when the patient is obese.
"With the average nursing age in the mid-40s, we need to protect our older, more experienced nurses," said Ball, the St. Luke's patient care director.
Novation Inc., an Irving, Texas-based hospital supply company, said it sold $847,000 worth of patient lifts in 2001. Last year, that number was up to $3 million.
Another source of growth for the industry is the increase in bariatric surgery, such as gastric bypass, or so-called "stomach stapling." The American Society for Bariatric Surgery estimates 140,600 bariatric procedures will be performed in the nation this year, more than eight times the 16,200 procedures 10 years ago.
Many industry executives said they don't foresee a downturn for their products unless the country undergoes a fundamental shift in how it views diet and exercise. In the meantime, with federal statistics showing that 15 percent of children are now overweight, a second surge of potential customers may not be too far away.
Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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