2015: The Year That Innovation Comes Back

Mark E. SmithThe formal definition of innovation is “a new idea, method or device.” Indeed, innovation is a term we use often in the complex rehab technology (CRT) industry. Yet, when we’re at our best with the creation and application of CRT, our definition of innovation is much more profound: a device or method that improves the quality of one’s life in a way previously not possible. Two years ago when I was writing my book, Wheels of Change, and chronicling the history of CRT, a trend emerged from my research and first-person interviews.

Every true complex rehab technology innovation was born from a single person seeking to improve the life of another. From the original ultralightweight manual wheelchair to the first pressure-management cushion to the first head array, true innovations in CRT all trace back to a single purpose: to improve the quality of one’s life. This profound pattern held true for over 30 years.

A Wrench in the Works

However, in the mid-2000s, the funding climate threw a dramatic curve ball into our noble definition and practice of innovating CRT — and much of it came crashing down on those most in need. I remember the excitement and seemingly unstoppable pace at which complex rehab power chairs were being innovated in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Increased performance and durability were driven by the Americans with Disabilities Act turning 10: Manufacturers built innovative products for those pursuing education, community and career. Gearless-brushless motors, suspension systems, larger batteries and advanced electronics paved the way for those with complex rehab needs to live increasingly active, independent, successful lives.

Then the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services changed the coding, pulling funding specifically from truly innovative complex rehab power chairs. Much of the truly innovative technology was coded Group 4, a non-reimbursed category. Suddenly, as the first decade of the 21st century neared its end, manufacturers, providers and consumers had to concede that the previous innovative technologies were no longer funded. CRT was no longer driven by innovation, but by severe funding constraints.

Consumers often found themselves denied the exact innovative technology they had relied upon in the previous decade for lesser “funding-friendly” technology. Quality-of-life innovations were trumped by HCPCS codes, as everyone struggled to make sense of the funding climate.

Now, almost a decade has passed since those devastating CRT funding cuts, and while reimbursement hasn’t bounced back, 2015 is the year that we will.

Innovative CRT Makes a Comeback

Innovation is once again being defined as leaps toward improved quality of life, not a fear of funding codes. Yes, we all have to make a living. No, we can’t supply products that aren’t funded. But despite the storm we’ve weathered, I’m inspired that we’re back to doing what we do best as CRT professionals: finding creative solutions to innovate with the purpose of improving quality of life of those with CRT needs.

As manufacturers, we’re not limiting ourselves with funding codes, but inspiring ourselves by finding truly innovative solutions to users’ needs. As clinicians, we’re not limiting ourselves with reimbursement rates, but challenging ourselves by innovating approaches to ensure CRT reaches all in need. And as the complex rehab industry at large, we’re back to serving the most noble cause, where our definition of innovation isn’t simply a new idea, method, or device, but those that improve the quality of one’s life in a way previously not possible. That’s right — innovation is back!

About the Author

Mark E. Smith, born with severe cerebral palsy, is public relations & outreach manager for Quantum Rehab, and is author of Wheels of Change: How Complex Rehab Technology was Born, Evolved and Fosters the Independence of Americans with Disabilities.