Partnering with health care professionals may be the answer to increasing your weight-management programs' participants and retaining long-term members.

Congratulations! Your weight-management program is up and running. Your newspaper ads and in-house promotions have paid off with members enrolling in new nutrition classes and associated cardio programs, and they're asking their friends to join them in your eight-week-long classes. Your trainers are pitching weight management as a life-long commitment and offering participants advice on strength training and other club programs.

But, after a few weeks, you find your classes are down on participation, no new inquires have come in from your ads on your continuing weight-management classes, and your trainers are reporting lackluster responses from members, who cite frustration with their success in your program.

Now what?

You know there are people out there who need to lose weight. You know your club has programs that can help. You've advertised your programs in your area. You've reviewed member surveys, which indicate they want a weight-loss program that works. So why aren't the classes filling up and participants staying active?

Your long-standing reputation in the community may not be enough to attract and retain new members for your weight-management program. It's time for your club to have a checkup. It's literally time to call the doctor! Combining your club's weight- management program with input from a health care provider can increase your chances of running a long-term weight-management program successfully.

Is the Doctor In?
How do you go about identifying a health care professional who may be willing to work with your club's weight-management program? You can start with your current members using a survey to learn their interests in new programs and asking for their feedback on what doctors they see for weight control.

Center Club is a privately owned chain of three clubs in the Bucks County, Pa., area. The club's nutritionist, Cristi Quillen, who is also a certified personal trainer, has been with the club for about six years and networks with local physicians for her own private training practice, as well as for the club. She says, "there aren't too many physicians into nutrition," pointing out that doctors with whom she has worked have depended on her for diet suggestions for their patients. She also says providers require little feedback from her on member's progress and that her interaction with doctors usually occurs only when necessary.

Obesity and Depression
Quillen says depression is one of the biggest reasons people come to the gym. She has noticed in health history questionnaires completed by her clients that depression is frequently noted. She also says statistics show that 80 percent of people who need to lose weight have depression as a symptom. For that reason, Quillen also works with a psychologist who refers her patients who are in treatment for depression and weight-control problems.

Once you've established a list of local health care practitioners who focus on weight management, gather the credentials of your program's staff and put it on a fact sheet. Dr. Robert S. Watine, a board certified internist and certified personal trainer who advises his patients to work out for weight management, says "qualified" and "credentials" are the magic buzzwords doctors are seeking for personal trainers, nutritionists, dietitians and club staff offering weight-management programs.

The Write Approach
With your fact sheet in place, write an introductory letter to practitioners on your list. Your letter should contain information about your weight-management program. Emphasize how fitness programs help to sustain the work doctors have provided to their patients and how your program can augment their goals for their patients.

Quillen says she sends her letter to practitioners identifying herself, her background, experience, credentials, and her success and approach to weight management. She requests a consultation with the provider and, with a follow-up phone call, makes an appointment. Once inside the doctor's door, she learns about the provider's practice and approach to weight management, and they find a common de-nominator as a springboard to a mutually beneficial working relationship.

Not all doctors may see the benefits of working with a club's staff on weight management for their patients. Quillen says she has met doctors who believe fitness clubs operate on "a completely different level" from a weight management perspective. This can be your opportunity to educate doctors on the benefits of fitness and weight loss/management.

Making Time
But how can you get the referrals of patients from doctors? Will they respond to your letter and fact sheets? Some restrictions in the health care insurance industry are strapping the time and services doctors offer. Health maintenance organizations and other insurance providers are holding down costs on what service providers offer their patients. Doctors now have less "flex time" on the job because they have to see up to twice as many patients per day to keep their income from their practice.

You may see doctor's patients as a resource for new members, but what will doctors want from you in return? Dr. Watine puts it bluntly, "The physicians, as a class, are very difficult [to approach]. They don't have the time. The medical community has to be shown how [your partnership] will improve their bottom line." The doctors, he says, need paying patients to increase their revenue, and your members can fit that bill.

A House Call
Once you've made contact with a provider, seek an appointment for a consultation with the provider. One-on-one contact can quickly establish rapport and help determine if both you and the provider have the same goals and can work together. But the work doesn't stop there. Invite the doctor to visit your club and ask for suggestions to your existing programs. Ask what feedback the provider may want from you for weight-management patients. Be prepared to make some adjustments to your programs to accommodate the doctor's needs, such as details on nutritional counseling and providing progress report details for patients.

Another marketing tool that can help clubs establish rapport with health care practitioners is to create a medical advisory board. By inviting doctors in your local community to serve on a board, clubs can establish a potential member's perception of a direct link between fitness and health care. This link also develops confidence in your club and as your relationship with the doctor builds, he or she will be more apt to make referrals to your club and tell other doctors about your programs.

Medical Education
Doctors may know the benefits of fitness for their patients, but they may not always know what is available to their patients in their community. A valuable tool to educate doctors is to publish a fitness reference book with the most common health problems that are treatable with exercise. By distributing this book and other materials-such as doctor referral pads noting your programs and treatment options-you eliminate the doctor's time-related hesitance to partner with your club and increase the opportunity to receive referrals.

All of the work involved in establishing a partnership with health care providers may make a club operator wonder if it's worth the effort. If you are hesitant, keep in mind that some medical alliances prove to be so successful for clubs, they wind up bringing health care providers on site.

Ken Fetterolf, general manager of Center Club's three locations, says the chain emphasizes the whole wellness approach for members. Center Club has partnered with a chiropractor, a physical therapist and a nutritionist. The clubs offer weight-management programs that include one-on-one training for their members. Center Club's part owner, Len Cusato, says his staff members did their "homework" on their health care provider partners by doing a background check on them before they set up shop at the club.

Whether you choose to work with a physician on- or off-site, you should make the public aware that your program has a doctor's approval. By increasing the public's perception of your club's weight-management programs with a health care practitioners' alliance, you can gain program momentum and long-term members on a regular basis. It's a prescription for success.


The Doctor is Fit

Robert S. Watine, M.D., knows about the conflicts in the perception between fitness and health care. As a medical doctor board certified in internal medicine, and practicing his profession in a suburb of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Dr. Watine takes an approach to weight management that is not borne of conventionally accepted medical practice and the health care practitioners' norm. His belief and commitment to fitness spurred him to build his own gym where he sends his patients-some 500 and counting-to work out and trim down. He also has a gym at his home where he works out alone and with his wife, a registered nurse who is also a certified trainer.

"I've been lifting weights since I was 13 years old," he says.

Dr. Watine is on a mission. He guarantees the health care he provides. If patients follow the fitness program he prescribed, and it doesn't work, they don't have to pay the club fee. "That's how much I believe in fitness," he says.

When asked why he built his own gym, rather than send his patients to local clubs, Dr. Watine relates this scenario: He sent about 50 patients to a local gym for weight-management therapy as he prescribed. When he then approached the management of that club about partnering for weight-management programs, the club owner responded, "I didn't spend all this money on this club to have somebody come in here and make money."

"They slammed the door in my face," he recounts.

Dr. Watine says that weight management and fitness can work very well together. "It's so simple. Don't complicate it," he suggests.

Dr. Watine advises doctors and trainers to make goals achievable for patients, such as defining an easy transition period for workouts and setting a long-term goal for weight reduction. He says he doesn't require feedback from trainers as he will see it in the results of the patients who return to him for a follow-up visit.

When it comes to marketing clubs to doctors for weight-management program partnerships, Dr. Watine suggests, "Get him in the club. Invite him to the club to speak about weight management or nutrition." Don't go to his office, he says, noting the doctor will say he has no time. He suggests clubs introduce doctors to their programs. He says clubs may intimidate the average doctor, just as they often intimidate the average person who has never been in a club before. Most of all, make the club "approachable" by doctors, citing his own negative experience. "I would love to be able to bridge that gap," he proclaims.

Dr. Watine believes so passionately in fitness that he has partnered with another group of health care practitioners to help merge the industries of medicine and fitness. Since 1999, Dr. Watine has been designated the national medical director for Gym Doctors in Pompano Beach, Fla.

Gym Doctors was started by Drs. S. Joseph Angelini and Clifford Shapiro, two chiropractors who saw a niche to fill when health care professionals graduate with their degrees and have to set up shop. They approach clubs that probably have "dead space" which can be renovated as an office for a new health care provider, such as a chiropractor, physical therapist, massage therapist or any health care professional. The provider then signs a contract with the Gym Doctors and leases space. Everybody gains, including members. Drs. Shapiro and Angelini, both fitness buffs, say they have expanded their firm nationally.

For more information on Dr. Watine and the Gym Doctors, you may contact them at:

Robert S Watine, M.D. 1040 Weston Road, Suite 315 Fort Lauderdale, FL 33326-1912 (954) 384-0718

Gym Doctors S. Joseph Angelini, D.C. Clifford J. Shapiro, D.C. Pompano Beach, FL 33060-6563 (877) GYM-DOCS (4696-3027) gym@gate.net www.gymdoctors.com