Building a Women's Health Business
Women's health products and services can be a viable revenue stream for HME providers. However, it takes resources, knowledge, drive and expertise to win a sustainable portion of this market segment.
- By Joseph Duffy
- Oct 01, 2016
In 1996, nine independent businesswomen who specialized in
providing healthcare products and services to women huddled to figure out
a way to create success for independent HME providers. There were many
obstacles to success back then that continue to hamper the HME industry
today, including lowered reimbursement, higher acquisition costs, poor cash
flow, and legislative and regulatory issues.
From this meeting, Essentially Women was born, a member services organization
that started with 60 members in 1996 and has grown to more than 700
members and more than 900 locations. Today, the women’s healthcare market
is a top niche market with plenty of revenue potential. And as the population
continue to grow and baby boomers come of age, it’s never been a better
time to consider targeting women’s health as part of your HME retail strategy.
“The global market for women’s health devices is forecast to grow from
an estimated $1.8 billion in 2014 to approximately $2.4 billion in 2021,” says
Christa Miehe, president of women’s health member service organization
and buying group Essentially Women. “This significant growth will be due
to substantial increases in the prevalence of breast cancer, with rates of the
disease expected to increase due to an aging population, changing lifestyles
and higher survival rates.”
With this customer base growing, Miehe says that women’s health is underserved
in the HME market. One theory she shared is that the majority of HME
stores are owned and/or operated by men and it simply doesn’t occur to many
of them that women have specific wants and needs when it comes to their
healthcare products and services.
She also says that those who do recognize the need for women’s services
oftentimes don’t see how the revenue will justify adding these services. There
is an assumption that women’s health doesn’t
make money and, therefore, adding it to an
HME offering is a hassle with no return.
Finally, she says that those who do recognize the
need and can see the revenue opportunity are often
scared away by what they perceive to be expensive
start-up costs or increased staffing expense. Both of
these issues can be mitigated by carefully planning
which products and services you offer.
Maggie Moriarty is the Junior Category Manager
for Medical Compression at Medi USA, and she shares
Miehe’s opinion that the women’s health market is
strong and growing.
“There is increased awareness and activism
surrounding women’s health issues,” she says. “A prime
example of this is the breast cancer awareness movement,
which has not only spurred increased education
and research in breast cancer, but also has led to the growth
of related markets, such as lymphedema garments that
can be purchased at HMEs. Also, more women are moving
into executive and leadership roles at medical device manufacturers
and retailers, becoming leaders in the healthcare
community, and we can often offer a more personal experience
and perspective on new products, trends, etc., that we
observe not only in business but also in our personal lives.”
Are You All in?
Although women’s health offers a key revenue expansion
opportunity, it isn’t easy. Providing women’s health products
entails tailored marketing, sales and specialized service to this
critical clientele, especially when you look at where you can
specialize, such as breast cancer or maternity.
“If you are going to do it, you have to be all-in,” says Cindy
Ciardo, CEO and co-owner of Knueppel HealthCare Services Inc.
“It’s a different world with different marketing techniques. And it
requires a large selection of product because there are so many
fitting considerations following any breast surgery. And fittings
for post-mastectomy take time. All require privacy. And can I
say female fitters —not politically correct — but for the majority of women, a man will be a no-go.”
Another challenge is competition.
“Post-mastectomy was a good growth market
years ago, but referrals and repeat sales have
significantly decreased over the past few years as
reconstructive and breast-conserving surgeries have
become more prevalent,” Ciardo says. “With our new
laws, breast pumps are covered without any co-insurance
or co-pays, so those referrals have increased
dramatically. Compression is definitely growing;
however, there is much online competition and
it’s nearly impossible to compete if you factor in
fitting service time and cost.”
She also says that if you look at the two
biggest categories — post-mastectomy and
breastfeeding —you can find products fairly
easily. Breast forms and bras are available
through Macy’s, Nordstrom and even Kohl’s,
she says. And breast pumps are in Target,
Walmart, and pharmacies. Everything is
available online, and manufactures are
increasingly going direct with online sales.
“That says, the problem, especially for postbreast
surgery, is that there is seldom a professional,
certified fitter with whom to consult at department
stores,” Ciardo says. “And therein lies the opportunity
for HME companies.”
If done well, Ciardo says women’s health can be
a new revenue source for HME providers. However,
success will largely depend on the resources allocated
to building up a specialized niche in a traditional
HME. And that requires trained fitters, private
fitting rooms and, if possible, its own space for a
private showroom for women’s health products. The
cons, she says, are space, inventory, competition
online, manufacturers going direct and offering free
shipping and 50 percent off sales, department stores
(especially in larger cities), diminished reimbursement
and insurance limitations.
“Women drive an estimated 85 percent of all
purchasing, through a combination of their buying
power and influence,” says Miehe. “Even when a
woman isn’t paying for something herself, she is
often the decision maker about what does, or does
not, get purchased. Women serve as primary caregivers
for both children and the elderly. Women buy
on behalf of the people who live in their households,
as well as for extended family, such as older parents
and in-law, and friends. Women make approximately
80 percent of health care decisions for their families.
Women utilize more healthcare than men, in part
because of their need for reproductive services”
She says the benefits of offering women’s health is
that you have the opportunity to secure a customer
for life who will return to you for their family’s needs.
And the only difficulty Miehe named was that successfully
selling women’s health requires thoughtful store
layout and merchandising and more of a ‘caretailing’
or customer service-oriented staff person.
“You can’t succeed in this market by slapping
some boxes of women’s diapers or nursing bra pads
on a shelf and walking away,” she says.
Medi is a manufacturer of medical compression
garments, including compression garments
for venous disease and lymphedema, maternity
compression garments and compressive foot wraps
for restless leg syndrome. Although compression is
not exclusively for women, Moriarty pointed out that
each of these categories offer products and options
to serve women’s health needs.
“Compression garments are integral to women’s
health during pregnancy and afterwards,” she says.
“During pregnancy, the volume of blood in a woman’s
body nearly doubles, which puts incredible strain on
the veins, and can weaken and stretch them irreparably.
Even if vein disease is not immediately evident
during pregnancy, it may appear late as spider veins
or varicose veins. Wearing compression garments
can help support women’s vein walls and prevent the
development and worsening of vein disease.”
She also says that compression garments are
an essential part of treatment for lymphedema, a
condition of chronic swelling of the limbs that often
develops after lymph node removal or dissection in
breast cancer operations.
“It is estimated that 50 percent of patients may
develop lymphedema after standard axillary lymph
node dissection,” Moriarty says. “Wearing compression
garments after breast cancer surgery helps
patients maintain their limb size and prevent the back
flow of lymphatic fluid. Lymphedema compression
garments are often custom-made.”
Taking the plunge into women’s health
Once you decide you want to make women’s health
a part of your HME retail strategy, Miehe offered the
following steps to guide entry into this category:
Do your research
- Review your current sales and assess how much business you’re already doing in any of the before-mentioned women’s
health categories. Most HMEs are already carrying some kind of incontinence,
compression, breast pumps, and possibly diabetic shoes.
- Consider the demographics of your current customers, as well as your
geographic region. Do you operate in a growing suburban neighborhood
with many young professionals or do you operate in a predominately
senior community with a lot of retirees? Is there a hospital or cancer center
- Investigate the competition. Where are women getting their products
now? Will you have direct competitors within close proximity? If so, what
will you do better than they do to insure success?
- Do you want to ease into women’s health? After evaluating your current sales and your market, choose female friendly products that are similar or
adjacent to what’s already working for you. For example, feature additional
styles of women’s compression hosiery, display women’s diabetic shoe
styles, and offer accessories like carrying bags and milk storage solutions
along with your breast pumps. Feel free to take it slow. Add product lines
and expand your offering at a pace that’s comfortable for you.
- Or jump in with both feet? After considering the demographics of your
region and your neighborhood, and what the competition looks like, make
logical choices on products to carry.
- For example, Is your store located near a hospital with a booming maternity
ward? Or is there no maternity clothing store or baby supply store in your
town? Then jump into breast pumps, feeding accessories, nipple therapies,
nursing bras, maternity supports, and maternity compression. Is your store
located near a surgery center or cancer treatment center? Or is the closest
mastectomy boutique miles away? Then jump into mastectomy bras and
breast forms, scarves and turbans, skin care, and lymphedema therapies.
- Make sure you and your employees are aware of the features and benefits,
sizing and fit, colors, styles, etc., of all the products you decide to carry.
Lean on your manufacturers and suppliers to provide in-store education,
online tutorials, and videos. Lean on your member service organizations for
other access to education and resources like online courses, webinars and
in-store consultation and training.
- Reach out to your referral sources and let them know all the new products
you have to offer.
- TIP: Find the support groups in your community and build relationships
with them. Breast cancer patients and new mothers rely heavily on referrals
from their peers. These women trust the advice given both in-person and
in online support groups. The key to your success, or failure, can be found
in the relationship you build with support groups near you.
- Let your current customers know about the new products you’re offering. Invite them in to check it out.
- Keep an eye on what’s working and what’s not. Many people forget the
‘what’s not’ part. Dig in to the whys when items aren’t moving off the shelves.
- Make changes. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Be careful of
minimum orders and stocking lots of inventory. Choose manufacturer
partners that will work with you on starting quantities and who have quick
“Women are discerning, brand-loyal shoppers, and this offers opportunity
but also challenges,” Moriarty says. “Additionally, women’s health clothing
products often require specialized training to find the correct fit before
purchase, and instruction after purchase to know how to use the product
correctly. Even for a product that seems as simple as compression pantyhose,
many women cannot or will not wear them because they do not have the
correct size or have not been shown the correct way to put them on, which
dramatically reduces compliance.”
Finally, if you are just starting up in women’s health, referrals are very important,
Ciardo says. She recommends going after:
- Physicians for everything, but especially for breast cancer and maternity
- Breast care coordinators for breast cancer
- Lactation consultants for breastfeeding and infant supplies
- Lymphedema therapists for lymphedema (post-mastectomy or otherwise if
you start to do legs)
Women’s Health Product Categories
According to Miehe, some of the most advantageous women’s health categories and products
that HME providers should carry include:
||Panty liners, pads, diapers, underwear
||Compression hosiery, support garments and bracing, maternity swimwear
||Nursing bras, nursing pads, shawls, tank tops, sleepwear
|Mastectomy bras and breast forms
||Post-surgical garments, pocketed bras, tanks, camis, swimwear, breast forms (custom or off the shelf)
||Hosiery, arm sleeves, vests, lymphedema wraps
||Diabetic shoes, socks and accessories, fashion footwear
||Wigs, hair pieces, hats, scarves, turbans
||Solutions for nursing moms, radiation or chemotherapy patients, aging
||Pink ribbon apparel, trinkets, etc.
||Intimate apparel, loungewear, sleepwear, plus size bras and/or swimwear, bathing assistance, shower protection
This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of HME Business.