KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) _ At St. Luke's Hospital, each of the 14 new neurology intensive care rooms has a feature that's becoming standard in the health care industry: a patient lift system that can handle 600 pounds.
Hospital officials had the equipment installed out of safety concerns _ it can take five or six nurses to lift extremely overweight patients, said Jennifer Ball, a patient care director with St. Luke's.
``I think we're seeing more (obese patients) and people are more conscientious about it,'' she said.
Severely overweight people tend to have more health problems and they often can't fit in standard beds or wheelchairs built for 300-pound people. The $3 billion market for hospital beds, wheelchairs and other equipment designed for plus-size patients is rapidly growing as more Americans become obese.
The government estimates about two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese; 31 percent fall into the obese category.
Kinetic Concepts Inc. of San Antonio said its line of beds and accessories for obese patients took in $282 million last year, a 6 percent increase from the year before.
``There's more and more and more of these patients showing up at hospitals now,'' said Ron Dziedziula of KCI.
SIZEWise Rentals of Las Vegas, which specializes in medical equipment for the obese, said its business has grown 15 percent to 20 percent a year.
``Everywhere there's this awareness of obesity,'' said chief operating officer Trever Frickey.
Health care providers are calling companies such as KCI and SIZEWise for beds built to support up to 1,000 pounds and wheelchairs that are 32 inches or wider.
The equipment often costs much more than its regular counterparts. A typical hospital bed can cost $2,000, but a reinforced bed for heavier patients can cost $6,000 or more.
``Everything has to be custom,'' said DuWayne Kramer, president of Kansas City, Kan.-based Burke Mobility Products, a key manufacturer. ``You have to be thinking in a different way for everything.''
Kramer said that in the past, hospital workers were forced to improvise to care for severely overweight patients.
``People were welding beds together or putting beds on the floor,'' he said. ``When we first got into this (in 1979), there was nothing out there.''
The equipment can be a blessing for hospital staff, who have the third-highest rate of injuries or illnesses among industries with 100,000 or more reported cases, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many of those injuries come from lifting and moving patients, an activity made more dangerous when the patient is obese.
``With the average nursing age in the mid-40s, we need to protect our older, more experienced nurses,'' said Ball, the St. Luke's patient care director.
Novation Inc., an Irving, Texas-based hospital supply company, said it sold $847,000 worth of patient lifts in 2001. Last year, that number was up to $3 million.
Another source of growth for the industry is the increase in bariatric surgery, such as gastric bypass, or so-called ``stomach stapling.'' The American Society for Bariatric Surgery estimates 140,600 bariatric procedures will be performed in the nation this year, more than eight times the 16,200 procedures 10 years ago.
The growing demand for the procedure has led hospitals to open their own bariatrics practices and set up wings for bariatric patients. That means hospitals that were renting equipment for the occasional patient are now buying whole suites of specially designed beds, walkers and commodes.
``The volume (of operations) has dramatically increased, and that had drawn more companies to what they see as a lucrative field for them,'' said bariatric society president Dr. Harvey Sugerman. ``The number of people getting the surgery is only 1 or 2 percent of those eligible for the surgery.''
While most in the industry agree that the number of obese patients is fueling the current boom, others say society is becoming more accepting of overweight patients. People who might have stayed home for years out of shame now get treatment and equipment built for their needs.
``People would not be doing this if there wasn't market share to be captured, but the reason there is a market share is that this population has been underserved,'' said Walter Lindstrom, founding partner of the San Diego-based Obesity Law and Advocacy Center. ``This isn't just for bariatric surgery. Bariatric patients also need to get their gall bladders taken out or they get cancer.''
Many industry executives said they don't foresee a downturn for their products unless the country undergoes a fundamental shift in how it views diet and exercise. In the meantime, with federal statistics showing that 15 percent of children are now overweight, a second surge of potential customers may not be too far away.