As the sector finds itself once more in lockdown, I see challenges on the horizon for exercise on referral providers, the first and foremost of these being a COVID-created bottleneck.Referral rates were at an all-time high before last year’s first lockdown, let alone now in the midst of the current one. Once a long-awaited reopening is permitted, scheme operators will be playing catch up on all fronts.
Firstly, they’ll be assessing people who present back into their service, whose health status may have changed during lockdowns. Because coronavirus has pressed a big pause button for not just exercise on referral schemes but the freedom of movement and activity levels of the country as a whole, there are lots of people now restarting their exercise journey in a very different place to when they were first assessed. This means scheme operators will be faced with a huge need for new assessments and treatment plans.
On top of this, our sector is working to process numerous new referrals and, in all likelihood, will also be scrambling to create new offerings for long-COVID sufferers. The NHS has already put together a website called Your COVID recovery; it’s realistic to expect that there is going to be funding for a COVID rehab offering in the long term and this will become a big driver for EOR schemes.
Which all points to the fact that the referral rate is only going to go one way and that’s up – and that’s even before we mention the new social prescribing agenda. There’s an indication that there will soon be more health, wellbeing and lifestyle referrals than ever before.
But here’s the issue. Providers simply don’t have capacity.
Due to facilities being closed, some leisure trusts and councils aren't even considering opening their doors until April, to avoid yoyo confusion. Once open, social distancing restrictions will likely remain in place, meaning a large number of facilities won’t be operating at full capacity.
After the last lockdown was eased, many operators were reluctant to offer up space and time slots for exercise on referral scheme providers to use (even to their in-house services), needing instead to keep their limited space for ‘paying customers’. Others simply don’t have the physical capacity due to distancing restrictions.
It means scheme operators are finding themselves forced to delay recommencing their offer and any new schemes trying to get up and running are facing huge challenges.
The solution, in the short term at least, has to be offering a blended approach – a mix of face-to-face, telephone/text message campaigns and digital/video sessions to try and get as many people accessing schemes again as possible, despite capacity restrictions. ReferAll's Communications Solution offers customers flexibility to record any type of digital session, send patient invites via text or email and offer bookings and online questionnaire completion via MyReferAll.
Feel free to reach out to me or via our usual social channels - I'd love to hear your views.