ASA ruling raises renewed concerns over misleading marketing in mobility industry

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An ASA ruling made against a seating supplier in September has been hauled back to the surface after a debate ignited online among industry and care professionals who believe the case has raised wider issues of misleading marketing in the sector.

Northern Ireland-based manufacturer, Seating Matters Ltd, had its marketing called into question eight months ago by competitor Careflex Ltd, which disputed claims made in a piece of clinical research carried out alongside the University of Ulster.

The company, which became a BHTA member in 2017, serves the likes of NRS Healthcare, Medequip, Millbrook Healthcare, the NHS and a number of major care home operators.

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It conducted research claiming to be the “first and only independent, large-scale randomised control trial to have been carried out on clinical therapeutic seating worldwide”. It also stated that its clinical research “proved an 88.3% reduction in pressure injury incidence” in its seating products.

Careflex argued that the claims were misleading and could not be substantiated. The ASA agreed, ruling that the study could not be regarded as “large scale” because it consisted of only 36 participants.

In reference to the claim that its products could reduce pressure injuries by 88.3%, the ASA’s official ruling stated: “We had concerns with the methodology used in their study… because of the limitations with the study methodology, we considered that it was inadequate substantiation for the claim.”

Now, a number of care and industry professionals have voiced their concern over the claims. A social media post gained significant traction after asking “how many of us have been duped?” with one observer claiming the marketing material is still being used on the company’s website.

Gary White, health and safety freelancer, said in his post: “It really seem as though they wasted a good amount of money on research if they then gave it a completely exaggerated interpretation and is so different to what was actually found.”

Others expressed their surprise at academics from the university allowing the claims to be published and publicised when the claims could not be substantiated.

Jim Kayne from accessibility specialist Sync Living, said that there are many companies in the industry who claim they have “the next best thing” only for therapists and end-users to find the product has not met expectations.

He added: “The sad bit is it can tar us all with the same brush when there are ethical companies out there who simply want to do the best job they can with the correct equipment.”

Christian Symonds, managing director of Approach Medical, said that there are “many loopholes” in the marketing of medical devices and products that need to be closed to prevent other cases from happening.

He said on social media: “It raises a number of issues; 1. It took the intervention of a competitor to raise the issue with the relevant authority, why was the marketed evidence not challenged by the clinical community? If it was, was that challenge referred to the relevant authority body for further examination?

“2. Who is the authority that oversees medical products & devices? What visibility do they have of new products launched to the market? Are new product launches policed to identify these types of issues before the product gets to market?

“3. What level of compliance does a new product need to meet before it can be launched to the clinical community? In the sector in which we work, many companies have found a loophole where they can sell products that do not confirm to the relevant standards because it is ‘exempt’ on a technicality.

“These products are widely used across all healthcare sectors and have little or no evidence to support them, yet £m’s of public sector funding purchase these products every year and they are used on patients.”

At the time of the study, founder of Seating Matters, Martina Tierney, who is also an occupational therapist, said that the evidence gathered from the two-year study is “important for OTs to be able to justify the procurement of this equipment”. She said at the time that the evidence gathered from the study had helped to increase sales.

The company won a major contract in 2016 to supply its chairs to the US Federal Government’s veteran facilities across America. The Veterans Administration caters for over 1,000 healthcare facilities serving more than 9m veterans each year.

Seating Matters responded to the ASA’s initial concerns by maintaining that its study was, at the time, the only randomised controlled trial conducted into specialist seating anywhere in the world. It said their study was independent and had been peer reviewed.

It also provided a copy of its study, which it believed substantiated the claim. Company directors also provided a draft report which had been submitted to two publications for peer review.

The company has been approached for comment.

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