• Feature

    Before You Buy: 26 Key Questions to Ask Suppliers

    Before purchasing a product, PTs and PTAs should ask a lot of questions. Some may be obvious. Others aren't. Here's what PTs, PTAs, and suppliers say are the questions to ask—and the answers to listen for—to help ensure you're making the right decision.

    Key Questions

    Evidence, Efficacy, and Performance

    1

    What evidence can you show me that your product functions and performs as advertised? If this device measures some aspect of my patient's progress, can you provide references from the peer-reviewed literature that address both measurement reliability (ie, the device measures real change rather than changes caused by extraneous factors) and measurement validity (ie, the device actually measures what it is intended to measure).

    Physical therapists (PTs) should not assume that all products perform and function as promised. Ask for evidence of performance, because you don't want to be disappointed after the purchase. You want to be well informed of the product's true capabilities. Dig in and ask for proof.

    Ask for published literature in a peer-reviewed journal that showcases the product's capabilities. Ask to see videos that show the product in action with real patients, doing what it is promised to do. Sometimes a practice obtains a piece of technology and ends up not using it because it doesn't perform as expected. You don't want to be disappointed after a purchase because you were expecting something that was not delivered.

    Until there is a Consumer Reports in the rehab world, PTs must ask for proof that backs up a company's claims.
    Aretech

    I realize, of course, that studies from the peer-reviewed literature that address measurement reliability and measurement validity often are few and far between. Likewise, it seems that many vendors will supply literature from their own research to document efficacy and validity/reliability. Still, it is critical for clinicians to consider these questions.
    Charles Ciccone, PT, PhDFAPTA

    With the profession always moving toward evidence- based practice, research gives us a better vantage point on which to judge whether certain services and products are right for our patients.
    Tracy Eckett, PTA

    Equipment selection priority should focus on products that directly improve patient outcomes and are rooted in evidenced-based clinical studies.
    Biodex Medical Systems Inc

    Customer Relations

    2

    How do you handle communications with customers?

    Companies have an obligation to embrace all methods of communication. It is very important to establish the best method of communication for each customer because "time is always of the essence." In such a competitive environment, we will call, email, fax, or text if it is convenient for our customers.
    KLM Laboratories

    3

    I know you've worked with similar companies, but what do you think is unique about ours?

    You want to know that the supplier has done its homework about your organization or company.
    Kathleen Lieu, PT, DPT

    References

    4

    Can you provide me with 3 references?

    A good supplier will offer 3 positive references with ease.
    Kathleen Lieu, PT, DPT

    Ask the vendor for a list of agencies and contact people currently using the product. The Internet also is a good source to investigate user comments.
    Biodex Medical Systems Inc

    The answers can provide insight to a few salient points that can factor into your decision-making process: Perhaps this vendor has not yet sold 3 of these items or units. If it cannot give 3 references, this may suggest either that you are among the first to use this product—or that 3 satisfied customers are not available.

    Local competitors recently may have purchased this product, leaving you with a decision to make: Do you "keep up," or do you decide not to purchase this particular model because it wouldn't be unique to your facility? Even a brief communication with a few of these references could provide more insight than you could develop through brainstorming. Everyone is busy, so a clear and simple email inquiry works best for most—with a follow-up phone call to those that have not replied.
    Mike Studer, PT, MHS

    References can be a new customer's unwritten guarantee that the company has been genuine in its promise to produce quality products and services.
    KLM Laboratories

    Vendor and Product History

    5

    How long have you been in business?

    There is value in longevity and knowing the business has been in operation for a while. Several years' experience indicates that the company is solid and has experience working with actual practices and dealing with customer service and support issues.
    MWTherapy

    6

    How long has your company been making these products?

    If the company has been making them for only a short time, it may not have the expertise the PT is looking for. The longer the company has been making the product, the better the chances are that it:

    • Is high-quality
    • Has been regularly updated to take advantage of current technology

    Similarly, the odds are better that a company with a long production history:

    • Has the ability to service and repair the product
    • Offers competitive pricing
    • Has a developed and well-trained customer service department

    KLM Laboratories

    7

    Can you respond quickly to changing market conditions?

    Technology is constantly advancing. New research seems to be published every second. We want to know that our suppliers are up-to-date on evolving market conditions and can respond quickly to new changes and demands. We also don't want to be sold outdated equipment, tools, and other products.
    Kathleen Lieu, PT, DPT

    8

    What is the product's history of enhancements?

    It can be easy for a company to promise certain improvements. This may prove enticing. However, a PT should ask about the history of innovation to understand what has occurred and what the future looks like. Some companies build for planned obsolescence. Others do not. Particularly with capital equipment, the potential of enhancements can be an important part of the decision-making process. However, enhancements to the product could result in extra costs, so that topic should be clarified with the supplier as well.
    Aretech

    Product Choice and Variations

    9

    Is the sample I'm reviewing differ from the production model being sold?

    Samples might be made slightly different from the actual product to work better in repeated demos. Ask whether the product you will receive will differ from the sample you're testing.
    Kathleen Lieu, PT, DPT

    10

    What safety certifications does your product have?

    Just because a product is listed with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not mean it has gone through medical equipment testing. This is important because you don't want to order new equipment and find out after its installation that the facility's biomedical department won't authorize its use with patients. If a biomedical department requires specific safety certifications by a nationally recognized testing laboratory and the product doesn't have it, you won't be able to use it until such certifications are obtained.
    Aretech

    11

    What other products do you offer?

    Often, a PT will contact a vendor or distributor looking for a specific product. The PT then will associate the vendor with that single product and not think to ask if that vendor carries anything else for the clinic. Some distributors carry everything a clinic could need. Ask distributors and suppliers what else they offer, so you can 1-stop shop.
    Fabrication Enterprises

    12

    What sizes and quantities of this product are available?

    Many PTs order quantities or sizes of products based only on using them in the clinic. However, a patient's rehab program often includes home exercises. Talk to your distributor and see if it makes giveaway sizes or offers bulk discounts on the products you are ordering.
    Fabrication Enterprises

    13

    What is your delivery time, especially for products to be used by patients?

    Our patients often need a garment or AFO "yesterday," so how quickly we can receive the item and work it into the patient's appointment is very important. There is a lot of competition among suppliers, and on-demand and/or on-time delivery can be a tie-breaker.
    Tracy Eckett, PTA

    14

    Do you guarantee the product? Is there a warranty?

    These questions may seem basic, but there's no guarantee of a guarantee. Warranties can vary not only by length, but also by what is covered. If there is a problem, under what circumstances will the product be repaired, and by whom? How is the decision made whether to repair a product or to replace it?
    Jeff Leatherman, PT

    Patient Affordability

    15

    Can patients afford this? Will they be able to use it at home after discharge?

    If the product is intended to be used by the patient at home, is it affordable? If the facility version is too expensive, is there a consumer version?
    Jeff Leatherman, PT

    16

    Do you work with insurance companies? What is your policy on providing products and services for indigent patients? What are the protocols for coverage of patients?

    For example, we work with a specific company to provide compression pumps for our patients with lymphedema. But if a patient is covered by Medicare, he or she must begin with a lower-level pump that we wouldn't necessarily recommend and prove it doesn't provide the desired result before our preferred provider can get coverage for the pump we prefer.
    Tracy Eckett, PTA

    Pricing

    17

    Do you offer contract pricing for entire health systems? Practice groups? Departments? Do you offer tier or bundled pricing?

    Tiered pricing can allow clinics and departments to pay less for products when ordered in larger quantities. Bundled pricing—for either clinics or patients—can result in lower packaged prices.
    Jeff Leatherman, PT

    Installation and Training

    18

    Are installation, calibration, delivery, and/or maintenance included in the quoted price?

    Be sure to clarify what is included and what is not. If it is not, is it available for an extra charge?
    Jeff Leatherman, PT

    19

    How long does it take to set up the equipment?

    If it takes longer than 2-3 minutes out of our treatment time, it had better be special.
    Jeff Leatherman, PT

    20

    Can my facility try the product before purchasing it? What are the terms of the trial?

    Buyers and staff should try a product to see if it fits the organization's needs. On paper, a product may appear useful, but when the staff actually uses it with patients, they might find that the product doesn't meet their expectations or needs. It may be too difficult to use with patients, or may require more set-up time than anticipated. A vendor who understands a particular facility's patient population and clinical needs may agree to a trial arrangement to improve the relationship and gain greater purchasing loyalty from the facility.

    In addition, the vendor often will agree to trials to spread the word about the product and its potential benefits. This arrangement allows practice owners to decide if the product really will be used at that facility without first making a major financial investment. Many vendors may be willing to allow a facility to try out a product at no charge, especially if the facility has an ongoing relationship with the vendor. Other vendors may be willing to provide a trial of the product if the facility agrees to pay shipping fees and insurance. Trials can last several days to several months. Some vendors add further financial incentives for the facility to keep and purchase the product—especially if a newer model or version is about to be released.
    Allison Lieberman, PT, MSPT

    21

    Do you offer training, in-services, or competency forms for product users?

    A "yes" from the vendor helps ensure that staff and patients will use products properly. Standardized education and training ensure that important aspects of product use, including safety instructions, are covered. Rather than the management team devising a competency form based on the vendor's instructions, some vendors provide competency quizzes or forms to determine if staff is competent in using the equipment safely prior to patient involvement. A competency form or competency training also may fulfill state, regulatory, or facility requirements for proper training of medical devices and safety.
    Allison Lieberman, PT, MSPT

    Software and Technology

    22

    On what platforms does your system run?

    Many clinics, PTs, and PTAs have device preferences. Some like to use tablets, while others prefer laptops. Some prefer Windows, while others prefer Mac. Ideally, the vendor's system will be compatible with most if not all major platforms and work on those platforms in a serviceable fashion.
    MWTherapy  

    23

    What differentiates your product from the competition?

    The system you acquire should meet both your current and future practice needs. Ideally, a system (1) offers the functionality you need under 1 roof to avoid multiple interfaces, (2) can be tailored and customized to your needs, and (3) can grow as your practice needs grow and change.
    MWTherapy

    Electronic Documentation Systems

    24

    Does your product contain clinical content that supports the specific work done in my facility?

    No one understands the nuances of physical therapy better than do PTs themselves. In your day-to-day activities, you need to be able to easily and efficiently document a large variety of patient types and diagnoses. Tools such as customizable workflow templates and clinically rich pick lists can accelerate software implementation, shorten the daily documentation process, and drive compliance. In addition, clinically rich content will help to standardize your documentation and processes across clinic(s).
    ReDoc  

    25

    Do you track industry and regulatory trends to ensure that your product(s) comply with and support our required work?

    With constant industry and regulatory changes affecting billing, compliance, and reimbursements, it can be difficult to know whether you're in compliance. By partnering with vendors who consistently track, and thoroughly react to, industry trends and regulatory changes, you'll ensure your documentation is relevant and meets regulatory requirements.
    ReDoc

    26

    Does your product contain tools for measuring client outcomes and tracking PT productivity?

    Keeping a close eye on outcomes and tracking productivity provides benchmarks for your facility's effectiveness and efficiency period-over-period. Choose a system that integrates data to support your goals around patient success. Benchmarking also will help you identify opportunities for improvement and discover areas in which your performance may be above average. It also can help you market yourself, based on your proven strengths, to referral sources and payers.
    ReDoc

    Contributors to This Article

    Suppliers

    Aretech

    Biodex Medical Systems Inc

    Fabrication Enterprises

    KLM Laboratories

    MWTherapy

    ReDoc

    PTs and PTAs

    Charles Ciccone, PT, PhD, FAPTA

    Tracy Eckett, PTA

    Jeff Leatherman, PT

    Allison Lieberman, PT, MSPT

    Kathleen Lieu, PT, DPT

    Mike Studer, PT, MHS


    Comments

    I think we shouldn't be short sighted about new products or vendors. Maybe a company saw short sighted approaches about delivery of products and services and broke off from previous suppliers to provide needed solutions. I often find good communication with the vendor will elicit that information.
    Posted by Claire Marie Mullin on 7/30/2016 7:33:19 AM
    Very thorough excellent work, happy to work with you.
    Posted by Avraham on 1/30/2017 3:33:04 AM
    You make a good point about how you should ask a few questions before purchasing medical supplies and equipment. It makes sense that you would want to know a little bit about their history, like how long they have been in business and supplying these products. I also like that you mention asking for references since it seems like you would want to make sure you are working with a reputable company. http://www.towermedicalsystems.com/products.php
    Posted by Marie Watson on 2/13/2017 12:37:32 PM
    I like the part where you suggested to ask the supplier if you could test the products first before purchasing them. I think it's only fair to do it since your going to buy more than a few items, and it can be quite a hassle to know that some of them don't work and you have to return them to the supplier. If ever I need to get a supplier for my electronic needs, I'd choose one that is reliable and who I know will respect my needs for assurance. Thanks for the wonderful article! https://www.ambardistributors.com/
    Posted by Tammie Houston on 10/24/2017 8:00:26 PM
    great
    Posted by yaman on 8/25/2018 7:34:03 AM

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