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.

Womens HealthIn 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.

Compression

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 near you?
  • 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?

Make Choices

  • 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.

Train

  • 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.

Market

  • 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.

Monitor

  • 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.

Adjust

  • 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 shipping solutions.

“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:

Categories Products
Incontinence Panty liners, pads, diapers, underwear
Maternity Compression hosiery, support garments and bracing, maternity swimwear
Apparel 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)
Compression garments Hosiery, arm sleeves, vests, lymphedema wraps
Footwear Diabetic shoes, socks and accessories, fashion footwear
Headwear Wigs, hair pieces, hats, scarves, turbans
Skincare Solutions for nursing moms, radiation or chemotherapy patients, aging
Promotional items Pink ribbon apparel, trinkets, etc.
Other 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.

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