What: An occupational therapist-approved online marketplace for used wheelchairs that improves the loaner chair experience
Who: New wheelchair users
Where: Products of Design classes “Service Entrepreneurship” and “Business Modeling” under the guidance of Steven Dean and Jana Gilbert, respectively
When: Products of Design, Semester 4
Why: I learned from a subject matter expert that the two worst wheelchairs a person will ever use are the loaner chair that they leave the hospital with and the first custom wheelchair that they purchase. Because the loaner chair from the hospital is generic and ill-fitting, the patient invariably orders a custom wheelchair with the help of their occupational therapist—but without the benefit of yet knowing their idiosyncratic uses and needs. As a result, this first wheelchair is often ill-suited for the patient, and can even be dangerous. For my expert, this meant that she was prone to falling and hitting her head on the floor, because her chair’s center of balance was too far back. This is particularly heart-breaking, since these kinds of frustrating and dispiriting experiences are often the first that people with SCI/D have with the outside world after a lengthy hospital stay—underscoring just how much has changed since they’ve acquired their disability.
How: Because the first wheelchair is so ill-fitting, and insurance only tends to cover a new wheelchair every 5 years, people with SCI/D and other wheelchair users buy their second, better fitting wheelchair out of pocket. This adds to the hundred of thousands — if not millions — of dollars that they’ll spend on their injury over the course of their lives. This also means that many veteran wheelchair users have several back-up wheelchairs that gather dust in their homes.
Instead of borrowing the loaner chair from the hospital, the newly injured SCI/D patient could be fitted for a used wheelchair—bought or leased from an SCI/D veteran with a similar level of injury and general body type—that is nearer to an ideal fit. Here, the new user could spend more time in that chair, developing their wheelchair handling skills much faster. Down the line, they’d know more precisely what kind of a wheelchair is best suited to their idiosyncratic needs. This would present a significant improvement over the current system, where patients often end up with a poorly-fitting wheelchair that they are stuck with for the next five years, or an expensive chair that they must pay out of pocket for.
After conducting market research and looking at how used wheelchairs are currently sold, I realized that there were a few key components that were necessary to making sure that Test Drive was a credible service: The service needs to have the buy-in and approval of the medical community; a quality verification protocol for the goods being sold; and precise sizing information in both the seller-side and buyer-side portals. These are all features that are missing from current used wheelchair sales channels such as craigslist or eBay. In these marketplaces, wheelchairs that could require up to 13 unique measurements and dimensions to order custom from the manufacturer are described as a small, medium, or large, or are reduced to merely two dimensions.
In order to provide this level of specificity in fitting the used wheelchairs, purchasers or lessees of wheelchairs would first need to be fitted by an occupational therapist for a wheelchair; those providing wheelchairs to the service would need to furnish the same documentation that they used to order the wheelchair in order to have it be accepted by the service.
After mocking up a website for Test Drive and experimenting with different business models for the service, I reframed the service as a marketplace—where buyers can connect to sellers, and vice versa—thereby reducing the costs associated with shipping wheelchairs and warehousing them. (Eventually, this marketplace could expand to reselling of any durable and expensive medical equipment that could be used by multiple owners. The name Test Drive would still be fitting.)