Does it make sense for your gym to expand into medical fitness services? The answer is — it depends. On one hand, your health club benefits from a growing base of business built off of referrals from the medical community, but, on the flip side, you can expect a large upfront investment requiring time, money, and space.
You would be jumping into a growing trend led, in part, by the American College of Sports Medicine’s Exercise is Medicine®initiative launched in 2007. This powerful move by a leading organization is an attempt to reset the conversation on the importance of sustaining long-term health through exercise and fitness.
For most of us in the fitness community the idea of using physical training to recover after a healthcare crisis or to slow down the effects of a chronic disease is as natural as barbells and free weights. However, in reality, for many years there has been a complete disconnect between healing illnesses and preserving and strengthening well-being.
As medical fitness centers establish themselves, physicians and insurance companies have come to recognize the value of “outcome”-based care rather than a fee-for-service mindset. Ideally, this results in a system where patients receive a prescription for exercise, and their highly educated and certified personal trainers become their partners in recovery.
Currently, it seems, most of these “clinic to community” programs are run by hospitals contracting with in-house fitness programs, or by major providers partnering with facilities thatare large and sophisticated enough to keep up with the medical community’s technology and care expectations.
That said, gyms of all sizes are setting up programs to build bridges between healthcare and health clubs. There are now an estimated 950 medical fitness facilities in the United States.
Basic Requirements of Building a Healthcare Referral Program
1. Retain a medical board or director to oversee the program.
2. Actively reach out to the medical community.
3. Commit to industry-recognized certifications for your health club and team trainers.
4. Hire or invest in trainers with appropriate, relevant college degrees.
5. Reserve dedicated physical space.
6. Invest in technology that integrates electronic records witha healthcare provider.
7. Maintain and use appropriate medical forms and questionnaires.
Advantages to Building a Medical Program
Constant marketing to attract clients is an expensive headache. With a referral system in place, gyms benefit from clients covered by an insurance policy that provides a specific number of sessions. Frequently, health clubs act as “joint-venture facilities,” providing space for a hospital’s physical therapy, rehabilitation, cardiac rehabilitation and arthritis programs, according to Athletic Business.
Gyms can then use this relationship to persuade patients to continue their care at the same location through marketing incentives. For the newly healed patient, staying at the same gym creates a sense of continuity that provides security and motivation.
Additionally, close contact between club members and clients in recovery engenders a positive, inspirational experience for both groups. This energy feeds a sense of community and commitment for your gym.
In a sense, your gym becomes an extension of the local healthcare community. Some gyms expand services by partnering with hospitals to provide seminars on common medical concerns, host health fairs, and deliver basic testing and annual flu shots. Others establish lifestyle coach relationships with groups such as the National Diabetes Prevention Program.
Finally, research shows gym membership is actually pretty evenly distributed through age groups — from early teens to senior years, about the same percentage of people from each demographic attend fitness centers. So, by bringing in recovering patients, you’re not only initiating a profit center, you’re attracting a wide variety of ages — opening up your business to a fuller group of prospects.
The Exercise is Medicine® program by the ACSM was started to build a link between healthcare practitioners and evidence-based physical activity resources within their community. For gyms it starts with hiring employees capable of becoming certified in the EIM module, which providestraining in working with recovering and chronically ill patients. These individuals must:
• Hold a qualifying university degree.
• Become certified by an NCCA accredited or ISO/IEC 17024 fitness organization such as ACSM, NSCA, ACE or NASM.
• Carry and maintain professional liability insurance.
• Commit to continuing education.
EIM offers three levels for certification. The first two allow trainers to work with healthy individuals cleared for exercise by their physician. In the third level, the patient is monitored and supervised by their physician while undergoing physical fitness training.
As your employee, the trainer will need to be supported through continuing education and a facility ready to accept medicallyfragile and referred patients.
Get Your Facility Certified
Medical Fitness-certified facilities bridge the gap between healthcare centers and gyms. The nonprofit Medical Fitness Association oversees a well-known certification for clubs seeking to build and maintain programs for individuals.
According to their criteria, the best clubs follow certain protocols:• Active and regular medical oversight• Certified and licensed staff• Written policies and procedures concerning user safety and the ability to respond appropriately to all emergencies• Disease management and prevention programs• Health-risk reduction and therapeutic-lifestyle programs• Individualized health screening• Testing and outcome tracking• Quality management, with a focus on measurable results• A focus on improving community health
Talk to a Healthcare Attorney First
The preventative and rehabilitative assistance offered through your gym could easily be mistaken for healthcare services. This gray area can get you in trouble with the federal government’s HIPPA regulations, and the FDA’s drug, medical device, and nutritional product rules, as well as create run-ins with litigiousattorneys noting misleading advertising or lax certification renewals.
Before you invest in the equipment, team members, and marketing to build this new revenue stream, it is a good idea to consult a lawyer familiar with medical fitness facilitiescompliance rules. Good guidance will keep you from making rookie mistakes that may mitigate any progress made bybuilding a health and wellness program for your company.
Like any new start, it’s best to talk to an expert first before moving forward and follow a prescription that works best for your business!