The hospital director’s guide to leading a fitness center

You already know why a medical fitness center is a good idea for your health care facility. But you’ve likely never worked in the fitness industry or managed a gym. So how can you make sure your fitness center is a valuable benefit for your health system and an asset to the community?

The good news: You don’t need to know how to create the perfect workout in order to successfully manage your medical fitness center. Instead, it’s all about creating the right environment for integration, serving your population with relevant offerings, and relying on knowledgeable, professional staff to keep things going.

Deciding on offerings

When it comes to deciding on offerings for your medical fitness center you can do everything from offering new therapies to manage pain and focusing on fitness for cancer fighters to gearing activities toward managing chronic diseases. But just because your fitness center has limitless potential doesn’t mean you should try to do it all.

“It’s important to know that you don’t have to be a jack-of-all-trades,” says Jeff DiBiaso, vice president of community at EXOS. “Regardless of whether or not you use a management company, a health system needs to know that if they have a specialty, there’s a way to run a medically integrated fitness center around that specialty.”

That means if your facility is focused on diabetes prevention or musculoskeletal care, your fitness center should have programming to match. Rather than thinking of it as limiting your potential customers, think of it as providing focused care for your patients that they can’t get anywhere else. It will also help keep those patients in your care for longer as you support them throughout their journey; something some health systems are calling a continuum of care.

That’s the goal for future programming at Mercy Fitness Center in Oklahoma City. “We can help patients who don’t feel comfortable at a standard, commercial-type gym feel more comfortable by developing specialized fitness programming that fits their specific needs,” says James Campbell, general manager of the Mercy Fitness Center in Oklahoma City. “For example, stroke patients could sign up for an aquatics class tailored specifically for those in stroke recovery, or whatever it may be.”

We can help patients who don’t feel comfortable at a standard, commercial-type gym feel more comfortable by developing specialized fitness programming that fits their specific needs.

For now, Campbell’s team often works with other divisions in the hospital to educate patients about better ways to handle their chronic diseases with fitness center services. “Recently, we partnered with the movement disorder clinic to provide more insight on the value of daily movement for patients who have had a stroke or deal with Parkinson's disease or other movement disorders.”

The right fitness center management team can help you make the connection between patient needs and medical fitness center programming. “We have to be nimble enough as a management team to be able to build programming around whatever the hospital’s patients need,” says DiBiaso. “At EXOS, we use our methodology to build a program that we know is going to be able to help hospitals keep that continuum of care intact.”

Integrating your teams

The most important thing to focus on when it comes to customizing offerings for patients is cross-divisional support. A close relationship between different staff members means a better integration of clinical and performance services.

For Campbell, the success of Mercy Fitness Center comes down to the relationship between their staff and the hospital staff. “We started with a formal bi-weekly meeting. But once we got the other departments to trust that we have the right vision for their patients, the lines of communication opened up drastically, leading to a beautiful experience for our members.”

Once we got the other departments to trust that we have the right vision for their patients, the lines of communication opened drastically, leading to a beautiful experience for our members.

Now other departments don’t think twice before including the fitness center team in events at the hospital or inviting them to lead talks about chronic diseases. That openness and trust has allowed the fitness center team to be an advocate for their client’s name in the community and provide excellent care for their patients as they transition from recovery back to normal life.

“One of the best things the fitness center staff has done is integrate ourselves into their continuum of care model by showing how we can help them help the community,” says Campbell. “This takes a lot of involvement and interaction between the different circles, like the registered dietitians, sports medicine department, physical therapists, and other services the hospital offers.”

Tracking how often the fitness center gets referrals from the health system, and vice versa, is one metric you can use to gauge how effectively your teams are working together to provide quality outcomes for patients.

Another future initiative at Mercy Fitness Center is a close collaboration with the physical therapy department. Patients will first meet with a physical therapist and a dietitian, and then move to the fitness center. The fitness center staff will work within limitations set by the physical therapist to help the patient with stretches, movements, and exercises to get back to work sooner.

Finding staff you can rely on

Hospitals and other health care facilities are used to having patients come to them when they need care, but that model doesn’t work for a medical fitness center. “A health system might say, ‘We’ve got this beautiful fitness center, but we’re losing money hand over fist. We know how to operate an urgent care, MRI facility, or a physical therapy center, but we don’t know how to compete with these big-box gyms in a highly competitive, direct-to-consumer retail environment,’” says DiBiaso.

When it comes to day-to-day operations at the fitness center, it’s important to hire a team or management company that has experience in the space and can lead the center with minimal oversight.

That’s why Campbell has carefully cultivated a great relationship with the vice president of administration at Mercy Health, which partners with EXOS. “Ultimately I try to make his job as easy as possible. I want him not to worry; I want him to understand and trust that we’re doing the right thing for his patients, for his community, for his brand,” says Campbell.

That relationship allows the hospital administration to lean on Campbell’s team for fitness-related matters, while still being allowed to weigh in on matters that are important to the hospital’s goals.

Expanding within your brand

Health care systems often find that adding new fitness services requires some stretching. One of those can be differences in marketing for the medical fitness center. Some marketing tactics, like having a presence on social media, might be something the health system has never done before, but a degree of flexibility is vital to making your fitness center enticing to your community.

“Health systems need to be able to find ways to market to a demographic they didn’t previously have the ability to reach while staying within their brand standards,” says DiBiaso. “That means administrators may have to bend on some of the things they’ve never done before from an advertising, marketing, and programming standpoint. Many times, we recommend having a new brand standard created for a health system’s fitness center, which helps differentiate the feel of a 'clinical' setting while allowing for there to be a brand standard that’s followed for all marketing teams involved.”

In addition to familiar offerings like a CPR workshop, things like aqua babies classes or senior citizen mixers can make your fitness center into a gathering point for your community. “Fitness centers have the ability to attract a lot of different eyes and be an incredible access point in the community for a health system,” says DiBiaso. “Having that connection point in the community will help those members coming and going every week keep your health system top of mind when a larger health concern arises.”

Engaging the community was key in helping Mercy Health increase attendance and member satisfaction at the fitness center, which in turn brought healthy people into their facility that wouldn’t normally be part of the health system.

As long as you trust your fitness center staff, you can allow them to stretch that comfort zone in ways that bring in more patients, without uprooting your values or contradicting your health system’s goals.

“I think hospital directors have a fear of ‘If I’m going to bring on a management company to run our fitness center, are they going to align with the values and culture we have for all of our team members?’ The best thing we can do is come in with the mindset that we understand our role, and we’re here to fit your needs, but we’re also here to enhance your culture without disrupting what you have in place,” says Campbell.

Looking for more advice on creating the best medical fitness center? Check out our guide to building an integrated health care fitness facility.

About the Author

Kelsey Webb

As an editorial assistant at EXOS, I'm eager to help others improve every aspect of their lives through healthy living. I enjoy bringing effective strategies and information to light by working with experts in all fields.

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