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Sizing up seating: Today, bigger is often better

September 1, 2008
by Shandi Matambanadzo, Associate Editor
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Obtaining comfortable and safe seating for larger clients is a growing necessity

Examples of furniture for larger clients from ki (left) and nemschoff (below)

Examples of furniture for larger clients from KI

The U.S. population's growing “size” is presenting the behavioral healthcare field with a challenge that in times past might have been given a seat in the back of the room and ignored. But the steadily increasing number of overweight Americans is affecting every aspect of society, even mental healthcare and substance use treatment. Approximately two-thirds of adults over age 20 are overweight (body mass index between 25 and 29.9) or obese (BMI of 30 or greater), according to the Weight-control Information Network (a service of the National Institutes of Health). Thus, behavioral healthcare providers are being challenged to make their clients more comfortable by reevaluating their seating options. After all, much of behavioral healthcare is delivered sitting down.

Ensuring that a manufacturer provides the type and standard of furniture the facility needs for larger clients involves asking the right questions and having the right information about clients to find furniture that will make patients and families comfortable and, more importantly, safe.

Seating industry vendors advise purchasers to understand the difference between bariatric seating and chairs for those who are overweight, although it's hardly an exact science. Becky van Leur, an account executive specializing in healthcare at furniture dealer OstermanCron, Inc., explains that each manufacturer has different weight specifications for “oversized” and “bariatric” furniture, and even those terms are not universally used. According to Paul Nemschoff, COO/executive vice-president of healthcare furniture manufacturer Nemschoff, “We work with two different types of furniture. There's bariatric and there's what we refer to as ‘high weight capacity.’”

The furniture industry has no formal test standard for oversized or bariatric furniture. The Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturer's Association has tried to address universal concerns, but BIFMA has not established standards for testing bariatric or oversized furniture. Nemschoff explains that his company's high weight capacity and bariatric furniture has features identical to its standard product but is engineered to a higher weight rating (Nemschoff's portfolio includes more than 15 products with a 1,000-lbs weight rating). Simply making a standard product wider would compromise the chair's structural integrity and endanger the client's and/or caregiver's safety, he says.

Deborah Breunig, RN, BSN, vice-president of healthcare marketing at KI Furniture, notes, “KI's weight rating is 750 lbs. Someone may question that and say there are people who are larger than 750 lbs…but they are a very small percentage of the population.”

Furniture has to be engineered not only to support a heavier person, but also to help a caregiver assisting a client into or out of a seat. An employee, family member, or friend may need to rely on the product to help the client entering and exiting a chair, and well-designed furniture will make a caregiver's job easier and safer, Nemschoff asserts.

Seating for larger clients also should be evaluated for its “psychosocial” aspects, notes Breunig, saying that it's vital to consider seating that does not leave the client feeling like an outsider. “It can be threatening to go into that space thinking there will be a chair that will break or where they'll get stuck,” she explains. “You don't want to give them one more reason to feel separated from society.”

Both Nemschoff and Breunig point out that lobby and waiting room seating for larger clients should blend in with the standard seating around it, and the purchaser has to decide what percentage of the furniture will be for larger clients. KI recently launched “one-size-fits-all” lobby seating designed to be comfortable for those who are overweight and those who are not, without making the latter feel as if they were sitting in an oversized chair. Van Leur notes that at the new Lindner Center of HOPE in Mason, Ohio, bariatric chairs in open activity areas match the standard-size seating so larger patients will not feel as if they were sitting in something “different” (For more on the furniture at the Lindner Center, click here).


An example of furniture for larger clients from Nemschoff.

Like any piece of furniture in a high-use environment, the fabric on oversized or bariatric seating needs to meet a three-fold obligation: “maintain its look, the rich feel, and a finish that's easily cleanable and can withstand the variety of cleaning agents that are used in the healthcare environment,” says Breunig. A facility can choose from a wide variety of high-performance textiles to upholster seating to maintain it for a long period. From leather-look vinyl to patterned fabric, bariatric or oversized seating need not be conspicuous when mixed with standard furniture, she notes.

Providers have much to consider when purchasing oversized or bariatric seating, and the right choices can be of comfort, both physically and mentally, to a growing subset of the population. Ensuring clients' comfort and safety should be a top priority no matter what size they are.

For more information, visit http://www.kihealthcare.com or http://www.nemschoff.com.

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