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EXCLUSIVE: Dealers could see new demand for high-end chairs and modular equipment

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The head of phasing in the new personal wheelchair budgets system has described how it could impact on retailers and suppliers, including a potentially greater demand for higher-end, modular equipment as well as driving new innovation in wheelchairs and powerchairs.

National project lead Kate Buffery hopes that with the new budget system people will be able to be more flexible in how they spend money and be offered more choice in the wheelchairs they choose.

For Buffery, this could mean private providers will have to be more competitive in how they meet those needs. One of the impacts of personalisation is that end-users will be able to purchase equipment from a greater range of resellers rather than just the ones that accept vouchers.

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“We do know that when people come out of NHS services they often need to contribute substantially to access the chair which meets their needs. Through personal wheelchair benefits we are encouraging CCGs to improve governance around these processes,” she told AMP.

“And crucially we’re asking CCGs to develop processes to identify when a wheelchair has an impact on people’s wider needs if there are resources which might increase the budget available to people. People will then have the choice to use their budget within NHS services or independent retailers. We undertook some scoping to see why people took a voucher and one of the things we found was that some people did want to own their own chair.”

The NHS also hopes that the budget system will drive a demand for new innovation in wheelchairs. Drawing on the example of one CCG, Buffery says clinicians are excited that they can have more clinical input when it comes to people seeking wheelchairs from private providers. Although Buffery admits there is still watching and waiting to do, she hopes a greater clinical input on the CCGs’ behalf will help people access solutions they couldn’t previously.

Another trend which could come out of the budget scheme is a shift in demand for certain types of equipment. When hearing from manufacturers, suppliers and dealers at a recent feedback event hosted alongside the BHTA, Buffery found that more modular equipment might be needed in future.

She said: “We’ve worked closely with Tower Hamlets on an integrated model between health and social care, where they are being creative and finding solutions through higher specification wheelchairs, which can often reduce the amount of other equipment needed in people’s homes. That’s the long term hope, that it will stimulate some innovation and change in the industry because I think it’s been quite static for a long time.”

“I would absolutely love it if it did create that demand for higher-end equipment. The response to person-centred services has to be person-centred manufacture and design and I’ve been to a few events where you can see that starting to come through. That’s part of what we’re trying to get across — this is how we’re responding to people’s changing needs, now how can you change as an industry?”

But inciting change in what is in some ways a conservative market is a challenge. Most providers, and CCGs for that matter, are used to the old system and so educating industry members on personal budgets is a priority. NHS England will continue to work with the BHTA to communicate information across to providers.

Buffery notes that the NHS has had some resistance to the project. But she adds that it’s about recognising the changing needs of the population and supporting a whole-system approach to meeting people’s needs. This includes supporting a culture change to work with people as equal partners in decision making and being creative.

She noted: “One site felt great that they’d had permission to think differently. It’s about giving them confidence. It’s still very early days and we’ve got a lot of work but I think we’re starting to see some real shifts and it’s certainly put wheelchair services up the agenda for CCGs.”

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Joe Peskett

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