By Leslie Nolen
March 10, 2006

Leslie Nolen is CEO of The Radial Group, which provides health, fitness and wellness businesses with sales, marketing, operational and financial know-how. E-mail her at lnolen@radialgroup.com, call toll-free 877-851-0098 or visit www.radialgroup.com to subscribe to free business tips.

Health care referrals are a terrific source of new clients for fitness businesses. Make this approach work for you by combining specialized marketing with great client skills.

1. Understand where physicians are coming from. Doctors want their patients to lose weight or exercise to improve risk factors such as high cholesterol or to better manage chronic conditions like diabetes. However, most medical schools don’t train doctors in weight loss, healthy eating and fitness. Plus, many doctors average only 20 minutes with each patient and don't have the time or the knowledge to directly advise such patients. Here's where you have the opportunity to help these patients in a simple and trusted way.

2. Present a highly professional and ethical image. Your referrals will be people with medical issues and health concerns. Simply referring patients to a gym is usually not adequate. Access to personal trainers, other fitness professionals and well-thought-out programs is key. Empower your personal trainers to consult with the physician on specific medical modifications as needed. These clients are tailor-made for fitness professionals with degrees or equivalent experience in fields such as kinesiology, exercise science, clinical nutrition, physical therapy, health promotion and health education. Doctors often refer patients to registered dietitians, but they are often completely unaware of fitness professionals like personal trainers. Key credentials—a relevant degree and well-regarded personal training or specialty certifications—establish credibility and professionalism. I think the best choices are NCCA-certified programs and other well-regarded programs like ACSM and The Cooper Institute. Educate physicians and their staff about the fitness profession, personal training and the existence of certification, continuing education requirements and practice guidelines developed by health and wellness professionals including physicians. Partner with health care professionals like dietitians or physical therapists to increase the services your club can offer to boost credibility. Note that the health care community generally disapproves of nutritional supplements other than multivitamins.

3. Educate yourself on fundamentals of the health care environment. Federal laws such as HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) govern the privacy of patient medical information. Consult your attorney to understand how this may apply to your situation. The physician’s billing staff can help you accurately describe your personal trainers' services to help patients seek insurance reimbursement. Familiarize yourself with newer forms of health coverage like health savings accounts and flexible spending accounts. Patients can often use insurance and health care accounts to pay for physician-prescribed services like weight-loss programs even when non-health care professionals like personal trainers provide those services. Some plans cover alternative and complementary medicine, but most don’t cover products like nutritional supplements, weight-loss cookbooks and fitness equipment.

4. Make it easy for doctors to refer patients. Provide a simple and professional brochure that doctors can give patients. Emphasize a healthy lifestyle, and avoid dramatic marketing claims. Include client testimonials focused on health benefits as well as information about your club and staff's credentials and experience. Legal and ethical concerns prevent most doctors from accepting referral fees.

5. Demonstrate that your services actually help patients reduce health risk factors. The most effective way to build physician loyalty is to provide brief periodic reports on patients’ progress. Most clients will happily give you permission to provide this data. Include fitness statistics like initial and current weight. You can also include patient-provided information like initial and current cholesterol levels.

Two Common Questions

Q: Doctors are busy. How can we get in to see them?
A: Get to know the office staff. They control the doctor’s schedule and frequently make informal referrals. Provide a stack of brochures. Offer staffers free memberships, passes or training sessions and lunch-hour presentations. Look for staffers who would like to improve their own fitness levels. Many physicians reserve time every month to meet with drug company reps. You can also ask for an appointment with doctors during a particular time each month.

Q: How should we decide which doctors to approach?
A: Get physicians’ names from clients who have successfully lost weight or improved their health under your staff's guidance. Ask them to mention your club at their next appointment, and then contact their doctors’ offices directly.