An opportunity or simply a tick box exercise? For many providers, exercise referral is seen as a ‘have to’: a sign they should do something in order to satisfy a community benefit tick box. However, the reality is there’s huge potential and opportunity within exercise referral that can elevate providers to win contracts in the public health arena.
The key, of course, is having sound, robust evidence. I have visited and spoken with hundreds of exercise referral schemes that claim to have the answers, but the basic data is missing: number of people referred, where the referrals have come from, uptake rate and, importantly, completion/conversion rate. The completion/conversion rate is a key business consideration for any operator, so they know how many people have been converted from the exercise referral programme into their main membership programmes.
Running a programme, effectively and efficiently, unlocks additional opportunities such as being able to bid for further public health contracts, releasing funding to existing programmes and making the case to business managers within your own organisation that the programme delivers more than merely ticking a box.
I fundamentally believe exercise referral is an opportunity and not just in terms of the public health perspective, which is essential, but also in business terms and the breadth of service. Exercise referral drives new people into leisure, health and fitness services, which in turn generates additional revenue. Being able to provide access and opportunity to people that would not normally set foot in the door of your facility is a huge benefit - to the provider, the commissioner and the client referred.
But how do we demonstrate someone is in receipt of these benefits? It’s a question I often get asked but the answer is quite simple. Measure and record what you are doing. Make sure it aligns to guidance and is relevant by using pertinent questions. Ensure your data is managed effectively and is obtainable from anywhere and from any device in a secure manner.
Data collection is paramount. Why would you run a programme where it isn’t possible to evidence what you are doing? From a business perspective, it simply isn’t a good idea. It’s vital to make patients aware that data is required prior to the start of the schemes, otherwise it can’t be adequately evaluated. Where NHS funding is involved the service has to be free at the point of service, but to perpetuate schemes and help them to thrive, patients need to provide data before, during and after their participation.
The face of leisure is changing, with health playing more of a role than ever before. To truly secure the future of Exercise Referral I believe we need to standardise programme delivery and data collection so the same things are being measured, collected and reported on across the board. This could enable us to bring down mainstream funding in similar way to smoking cessation or weight management programmes.
Exercise referral need not be your foe. Embrace it as a friend and it will serve your business and your community well.