Sometimes a simple idea turns into a significant business strategy. That’s certainly the case with Townsend’s “customized” OTS (off-the-shelf) knee braces.
Townsend, an orthopedic manufacturer in Bakersfield, CA, decided more than a decade ago to start asking customers for three leg measurements instead of relying only on the standard circumference measurement taken six inches above the knee. With three measurements, Townsend’s fabrication team was able to customize the assembly of an OTS knee brace to better accommodate disproportional leg sizing.
The idea proved so successful that most of Townsend’s aluminum osteoarthritis (OA) and ligament instability knee braces are now ordered with customized assembly. Instead of filling orders with a standard size (i.e., S, M, L, XL) brace, Townsend uses different size thigh and tibia shells—and presets the width between the hinges—to improve how the brace fits an abnormal leg.
In reality, “abnormal” legs are the norm in the US market, especially among patients who are fit with an OA knee brace, said Rick Riley, Townsend’s chief executive officer. Big thigh, small calf, a bulbous knee, or combinations of these are common, as are varus or valgus deformities.
“It has become increasingly difficult for practitioners to get insurance authorization for a custom-made brace, even when the patient has an abnormal leg size or shape,” said Riley. “The ability to order a customized OTS brace enables Townsend customers to achieve an excellent fit and good outcome for patients without having to order a custom brace.”
Townsend has never billed extra for custom-configuring a patient’s brace. “It is a value-added service for our customers. It also lowers healthcare costs for insurers and Medicare, while reducing copayments for patients,” said Riley.
While Townsend still manufactures a lot of custom knee braces, Riley said the number of “customized” OTS braces has been trending upward for at least five years and that Townsend’s business strategy is a perfect fit with national efforts to drive down healthcare costs.
Riley used to worry about competitors offering the same service. However, if competitors make their knee braces outside of the US, it is impractical for them to individually make customized OTS knee braces in Asia or Mexico.
Jeff Townsend, CO, an orthotist who patented brace hinges with a roll-and-glide movement that mirrored the natural movement of the knee, founded Townsend Design in 1984. The company now has 140 employees working at its fabrication and business center in Bakersfield.
Townsend’s sales are divided into four primary product groups: Osteoarthritis knee bracing; ligament knee bracing; specialty bracing; and rehabilitation devices.
While the company continues to diversify its product range, about 75% of Townsend’s US revenue comes from knee bracing, Riley said.
“We are still considered a niche manufacturer that does the majority of its business with O&P providers. We don’t strive to be all things to all people. What we do, we do very well,” he said.
Townsend’s technology and ability to fabricate braces for patients with complex mobility challenges help differentiate the company from other brace manufacturers, said Riley.
“Making specialty braces for morbidly obese patients or those with deformities related to polio, trauma, or other medical conditions is routine work for Townsend,” he said.
Through the years, Townsend has strategically avoided getting into the business of treating patients or billing insurance companies.
“We’ve tried to keep a pure business model that doesn’t create conflicts with our customers,” Riley said. “We are also really proud that over ninety percent of the products we sell are built in Bakersfield and over forty percent of our employees have worked at Townsend for more than a decade.”
Thuasne (pronounced “Two-Ann”), a prominent European healthcare textile company that specializes in compression belts, hosiery, burn garments, and soft braces, acquired Townsend in January 2011. The European company, family owned since 1847, purchased Townsend to establish a presence in the US market and to expand its product range to include more technical, rigid braces.
The fit between Townsend and Thuasne is a good one, said Riley. “Thuasne is strong in Europe; Townsend is strong in the United States. We’re three years into this relationship and no one has lost their job due to the sale of the company. That is a very fortunate and gratifying situation for our employees and sales representatives.”
Larry Hand is a writer in Massachusetts.