Your Medical Product Brand’s Retail Future: Bridging the Great Divide

 In Design Strategy, Medical Product Design

Once, white-uniformed attendants at service stations attended to our cars’ every need. Now we all pump our own gas. In the healthcare industry, a similar transition is underway. Patients are morphing into consumers as they take more control of their healthcare and subsequent buying decisions.

That control extends to preventing illness, diagnosing injury and treating medical conditions. It is a powerful trend that is opening new doors of opportunity for certain medical product companies.

I’m not referring to manufacturers of acute care medical devices like ventilators, infusion pumps or devices that assist doctors during surgery. Rather, those with products that monitor, diagnose, prevent disease or treat people but don’t require a physician or highly trained specialist to operate or understand.

The other day, we met with representatives of the new consumer health branch of a well-known medical product company that is a pioneer and a leader in its space. The branch was set up as a separate business entity, with its own employees, at a different physical location. This was not by accident. Management had grasped an important truth – that pursuing a consumer audience requires a wholly different mindset. Indeed, a fresh new way of doing business.

As the U.S. healthcare landscape changes, margins begin to erode and medical companies look outside their traditional markets to increase profits, there’s a lot to think about.

Medical product companies should begin to think of their customer as an Empowered Consumer, rather than a Fragile Patient or Professional Physician. Redefining the customer at the earliest stages of development and framing the problem in a new way will force your teams to reimagine what a medical product is and how it is sold. Design decisions will be made early on that ensure an alignment with the new consumer model. They’ll leverage low cost consumer solutions or accepted methods that are already being used widespread and are familiar to people.

Put People First

Your products might need to look different because consumers make purchase decisions based off physical and emotional needs. During research we conducted for a mobile medical device used 24/7, consumers told us very clearly: “Please just don’t make it look medical.” They were also saying: “I want to fit in, not stand out. Empower me, don’t hold me back.” I have a friend in his 60’s who wears knee braces during tennis due to previous injuries and to prevent new ones. His tired, old braces were dragging him down physically and emotionally, embarrassing him. Then he purchased new ones. They not only perform better, but through the appropriate use of design, materials and finishes make him look and feel better. Your customers don’t want to look handicapped. They wish to look bionic and will make purchase decisions accordingly.

As we all know, consumer product brands operate in a free market system driven by choice. As you begin to create and sell medical products into this market you’ll need to reposition your brand so it resonates with consumers and your products stand out in the crowd. You might need to capture a person’s attention in a few seconds as they walk by a shelf, perform an online search, or discover what’s out there on the iTunes app store. This is in stark contrast to the traditional method of being recommended by a physician. If your brand is well known in the medical industry, leveraging that reputation and aligning with physicians will increase your credibility with consumers and chances of percolating to the top.

Consumer product markets move faster than medical markets, experience shorter product life cycles, and require more frequent product launches. Speed is not a common attribute of medical device manufacturers but could become your marketplace advantage. Your company may need to become more nimble, get products out the door faster, and depending on the product type may even experience seasonality.

People will pay a premium for a product from a well-positioned brand but there are limits, and price will be factored into the buying decision more than ever. The difference between a medical and non-medical product is the regulatory approval required by agencies like the Food and Drug Administration. This typically long and expensive process is one of the reasons medical products cost so much. Companies that can shift already approved products to the consumer model will have clear cost advantages over companies with new products whose regulatory costs need to be factored into consumer pricing. Leveraging your core technologies and repurposing them for the consumer market will give you a clear pricing advantage over companies without a medical background.

Use The Apple Approach

Everything at a medical product company typically revolves around its technical research and development department, where a product’s technology typically tells its own story to physicians and other healthcare professionals. The barrier to entry caused by the FDA approval process ensures limited competition and a less crowded marketplace. In contrast, the most successful consumer product brands put people over product. Think “PC verses Mac”. Those wildly successful Apple commercials. Apple’s R&D budget is likely larger than any medical product’s development budget but that’s not the story they use to sell their products and differentiate themselves. For some companies moving away from a technical product-centric mindset may be easier said than done. The smart approach may be to populate an entirely new organization with people who understand the consumer marketplace . You will then need to inculcate them with your brand’s values, of course.

The new methods of diagnosis and prescribing treatment will further challenge the standard operating procedures of most medical device companies. In the past, a physician provided a diagnosis and prescription. The new model will require a medical device manufacturer to assume a vastly expanded role, to the extent of setting up an entire product ecosystem. That could mean helping a consumer choose the right product for diagnosis or the best product for treatment, become responsible for transferring data to physicians, enlist physicians to review results, and a present a method for those doctors to prescribe treatments. In this manufacturer-driven ecosystem, education and assisting with self-diagnosis will be just as important is providing the product itself. Manufacturers will have to help people decide “which product is right for me” at point of purchase either online or at a physical retail location.

A Computer in Every Patient’s Pocket

Smartphones have enabled a consumer health revolution where people are taking control of their own healthcare. A combination of apps, peripheral products that attach to a smartphone, and the cloud have changed the game and blurred the line between consumer and medical. For example, the Peek eye exam app and smartphone lens adapter allow anyone with an iPhone and minimal training to conduct an eye exam. The data can be reviewed real time by a physician anywhere in the world who remotely diagnoses and prescribes treatment. In his TED Talk online, Andrew Bastawrous explains how this $500 solution replaces a $25K piece of equipment, a $150K operating budget, and the 15 person team that he previously required to conduct eye exams on poverty stricken patients in Kenya. Reducing costs, simplifying products so anyone can use them, and leveraging a consumer mindset will create new markets and business opportunities.

As technology shifts from novel innovation to commodity, the tools employed by the best consumer brands will be especially important as the brand becomes the main differentiator. For example, after a quick search for “Digital Medical Thermometer” (an FDA regulated medical device) on Amazon, 51 brands showed up. There is not much difference between these products besides the way they are used and the brand itself.

Armed with these tools, the consumer will be seizing control. Is your company ready to meet the challenge?

Recommended Posts