Developing a Medical Referral Program

Even the most successful clubs experience frustration in setting up a medical referral program. The difficulty lies in the fact that physicians don't necessarily see the benefits of these referral programs. And they don't have a lot of time for you to explain it to them due to the demands of insurance companies. They have to see twice as many patients as before, but in the same amount of time. And while this is a problem, it's also an opportunity.

"If you can sell to physicians and other health care providers the concept that you can save them time and money by establishing this referral relationship, then you can create a successful program," emphasizes Sam Young, president of Tilton Fitness Management, which operates two clubs and partners with a hospital at a third club in New Jersey.

In order to do that, your club has to be ready to accept referrals, notes Doug Ribley, director of fitness and wellness for Akron General Health System, Akron, Ohio. And being ready to accept medical referrals means your club has to be operating properly and up to hospital standards, which include cleanliness, a well-maintained facility, qualified staff and excellent customer service. "If those things aren't in line, then you're never going to get physician and hospital referrals because they won't be comfortable sending their patients to your facility," notes Ribley.

If you're ready, here's some advice to help you get going.

* Start small. Find a doctor who has an office close by and make your program a turnkey program. "Don't make the doctors have to do anything, because they won't," relates Young from experience. "Go to his office and explain the program to his nurses, because basically the nurses run the whole show. If they don't buy into it, neither will the doctor." If all goes well with your first doctor, then expand to two. If it doesn't, then you haven't invested a lot of time and money.

In addition, if you only have one facility, starting small will allow you to provide better customer service to the physician. Physicians draw from a much wider geographic population than fitness clubs, so if you have a network of clubs, then you can offer greater coverage to the physician. But if you don't, survey your members and find out who their physicians are. Then pick one close to your club.

* Create a medical advisory board. Invite physicians from your community to be part of your medical advisory board. The board should meet once every one to two months. Its purpose is to review your facility to make sure you are up to their standards. This opens the lines of communication and starts building relationships that could develop into medical referrals.

"Once they're on your board and see you're doing things up to their standards, they will become more comfortable with your facility and be more apt to make patient referrals and tell other physicians about your facility," notes Ribley. "While doctors know the benefits of exercise, they don't always know what is out there and available in their community."

* Educate, educate, educate! If you want to set up a good referral program, you must have good communication with the local health care professionals. While creating a medical advisory board is a good start, not everyone may want to participate. So for those who don't, you must educate them on how you can help their patients after the reimbursable part of their care is complete.

"One of the major problems with health care is that once patients are done with their reimbursable care and are just starting to feel good about themselves, they're on their own," shares Ribley. "It would be ideal if there was a next step for continued improvement and prevention. [Health/ fitness clubs] fit into the continuum of care perfectly, but the hospital departments and physicians need to understand this."

* Make it easy, but worth your time. Young has put together a program that requires minimal effort from participating doctors, but is great advertising for his clubs. He provides the physicians with an exercise prescription fitness pad. Then when a referral is sent, the prescription has the doctor's exercise recommendations and any contraindications. The prescription is then passed on to the trainer who designs a program for the patient.

Young also gives the physicians a fitness reference book that is tabbed with 15 of the most common problems that are treatable with exercise. Inside the book there are information sheets that contain the facility's logo which the physician gives to the patients.

It's a win-win situation. The doctor has a reputable place to send patients, and you get people in your club who wouldn't have walked through the doors otherwise, states Young.

* Quality service is a must. The most important component of a successful medical referral program is providing quality service to the physician. "You have two customers - the patient and the physician - and if you do anything to contradict, belittle or embarrass the doctor in his patients' eyes, you will lose him forever," Young explains. "If a patient gives the doctor positive feedback, then the physician will be happy with you and continue to send referrals."

* Show gratitude. "I think it's important to keep track of where your referrals are coming from and make sure those people are recognized in some way even if it's nothing more than a thank you," notes Ribley. "It's important that you recognize people for the support they're giving you."

In addition, Young adds that doctors love free things, so sending an occasional gift their way doesn't hurt either. Just be careful about offering a free membership. It may go against their ethics to accept it. If the physicians are on your medical advisory board, however, you can give them free memberships. That's OK. And by all means, offer the nurses free memberships. That would be prudent, since they run the show.