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Ochsner Fitness Center: Working in Unison

Ochsner Fitness Center

Insights into Ochsner Fitness Center, their medically integrated model and how it’s improving health outcomes across the Gulf South region.

If there’s anything positive that can be taken from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that the crisis has highlighted the importance of the fitness and healthcare industries working in unison to improve health outcomes for Americans across the nation. 

A great example of how powerful these forces can be when working together is Ochsner Health, Louisiana’s largest non-profit, academic, healthcare system. The entity spans 40 hospitals, 100-plus health and urgent care centers, five medically-integrated fitness facilities, three performance training centers, a medical spa, gymnastics academy, over 200 Eat Fit partner restaurants and 15 partner clubs. 

Ochsner Health was founded in 1942 by Alton Ochsner and four colleagues in New Orleans. Over the following decades, it would earn a reputation for being forward-thinking, honing a philosophy of preventative care and a commitment to health and wellness. 

In 1988, when Elmwood Fitness Center went up for sale, Ochsner Health acquired it as a natural extension of that philosophy. Today, the health system’s fitness facilities fall under the brand name Ochsner Fitness Center, and represent a true integration of medical and fitness for Louisiana and the Gulf South region. 

“We are in a very unique situation where we operate as a commercial health club company, but we have the benefits of being owned by one of the largest healthcare systems in the Gulf South,” said Wayne Morris, the assistant vice president of health and wellness solutions for Ochsner Health. “We are truly integrated into the healthcare continuum of care through our connection with Ochsner. We see a coordinated effort by our physicians to navigate patients through a path of wellness via the fitness center through injury prevention, corrective exercise, fitness programs and services. In return, Ochsner Fitness Center members are able to take advantage of Ochsner Health and all of the medical services it has to offer.” 

Ochsner Fitness Center is part of the value-based/population healthcare model Ochsner Health subscribes to, as insurers and health systems are increasingly shifting to a value-based reimbursement methodology.  

 “In a value-based reimbursement model, providers are rewarded for effectively managing the health of individuals and populations,” explained Morris. “The healthier your patient is the better the financial reward.”

Hence, the acquisition and incorporation of the Ochsner Fitness Centers under the umbrella of Ochsner Health. 

“What better way to keep your members or patients well and have a better quality of life than for them to have a prescription to exercise at Ochsner Fitness Center?” continued Morris. “In the end, value-based care requires providers to take a more team-oriented approach to patient care, coordinating care across the continuum and collaborating with a patient’s other care providers to deliver the best health outcomes possible. This is a key differentiator compared to our competition in the region.”

Ochsner Fitness Center

According to Noel Simmons, the director of fitness and programming at Ochsner Fitness Center, the fitness facilities are treated just like any other entity within the health system. As a result, they benefit from all of the resources at Ochsner Health’s disposal, including marketing and branding help; financial, legal, real estate and creative services; supply chain teams and more. 

Ochsner Fitness Center also has a great relationship with the system’s physicians via the medical fitness program, which prescribes patients exercise at Ochsner Fitness Center. 

“The way the program works is physicians identify that a patient has some sort of comorbidity or single risk factor during their visit, and determine if their condition can be improved or maintained with physical fitness,” explained Simmons. 

Examples of comorbidities include hypertension, obesity, diabetes, cardiac problems, joint issues and post-partum.

“The physician then simply prescribes exercise by referring the patient to Ochsner Fitness Center electronically via our medical record system,” continued Simmons. “The fitness center will get notified of the referral and we will contact the patient directly.” 

The patient then goes through a 90-day program that includes a guided facility tour, fitness assessment, one-hour personal training session, nutrition consultation and access to specialized group exercise classes and pools. The program is offered to the patient for $1 per day, and they receive a discounted rate upon graduation to become a member at Ochsner Fitness Center.  

Ochsner Fitness Center received over 4,000 medical fitness referrals in 2019 alone. 

However, the organization’s commitment to health and fitness doesn’t stop there. Between Ochsner Fitness Center and the overall Ochsner Health system, the goal is to have a much greater impact on the overall health outcomes of communities within the region. 

“In January of this year, our president and CEO Warner Thomas announced a system rebrand changing from Ochsner Health System to Ochsner Health,” said Morris. “Our name change publicly symbolized Ochsner is leading the conversation on health and changing the future of wellness in Louisiana and in the Gulf South region. With Ochsner Health’s size and strong reputation comes additional responsibility. As Louisiana’s largest healthcare provider, employer and educator of healthcare professionals, we are committed to investing in and improving the lives of those we serve.” 

Historically, Louisiana in particular has suffered from high levels of poverty, chronic disease, smoking and various other factors that have had a negative impact on the health outcomes of local communities. As a result, Morris explained Ochsner Health is doubling down on its commitment to preventative care. 

“By promoting the health and wellness of the whole person and preventing disease before it starts, over time we will radically improve our state’s position in national health rankings,” said Morris. “And most importantly, we will change people’s lives and futures.” 

Ochsner Fitness Center’s role in this endeavor is significant. Over the next three to five years, Morris explained the organization is committed to building an “Ochsner Fitness Network” in the region consisting of additional bricks and mortar clubs, partner clubs, and digital and nutrition platforms. 

In addition, Ochsner Health has made a significant financial commitment to upgrade its existing fitness centers through renovations and strategic improvements.  

“Basically, the system and Warner Thomas doubled down on the fitness industry — not just talking about wellness and preventing illness, but providing funding to advance it,” said Tammy Nunez, the director of sales and marketing at Ochsner Fitness Center. 

For example, at Ochsner Fitness Center’s Harahan location, a recent renovation saw upgrades to the cardio rooms, weight room, functional training area, personal training studio, cycle studio, locker rooms, pool deck and Kidsports Complex to include the Ochsner Performance Training Center. They also did renovations at the Heritage Plaza and Downtown locations.

“The highlights of the physical renovations start with connected cardio and strength machines that personalize workouts to each fitness consumer,” said Nunez. “The machines literally make a workout for you in alignment with your goals, fitness level, and even your music and entertainment preferences. The equipment promotes movement — the base of exercise — but integrates wearable technology along with workout databases and even workout tracking to advance the fitness of each person using our new equipment.”

Members can take advantage of joint-protecting rotating dumbbells from Eleiko, Technogym selectorized and plate-loaded strength machines, Precor cardio pieces, six TRX bays, medicine balls, and much more.  

“It could take a person days to discover all the new nooks of elevated equipment Ochsner Fitness Center offers,” said Nunez. “In all, our membership base has the supreme advantage in the wellness game — a place that has every conceivable machine and piece of equipment to maximize their fitness level.” 

Ochsner Fitness Center

Another project the Ochsner Fitness Center team is excited about includes the launch of the Functional, Intentional, Transformational, Training (FITT) Lab App — which came about as a result of the pandemic. 

“The first phase of this launch was geared around a virtual fitness program you could watch from anywhere on your mobile device,” said Damon Kremer, the director of operations at Ochsner Fitness Center. “This was launched to members and employees. Over 3,000 people downloaded the app before we reopened the fitness centers.”

The second phase included incorporating all of the programs offered at Ochsner Fitness Center’s five facilities into the app. 

“We used the app to enable members the ability to book a workout, group exercise classes, swim lanes and racquetball courts, as well as track capacity of the clubs,” said Kremer. “To date, we have more than 10,000 downloads, 20,000-plus reservations booked every month and over 5,000 fitness workout views.” 

While virtual fitness has proved to be a boon for Ochsner Fitness Center, Morris predicts digital will also play an increasing role on the healthcare side as well.  

“The future of medical fitness will be on the digital side,” said Morris. “I believe one day soon healthcare systems will be able to prescribe exercise programs based on their patients’ condition to a digital platform. The patient will then follow the prescribed exercise/wellness plan, track their progress and the results will be delivered back electronically to their physician. Currently, all the technology pieces and parts exist, but is the fitness industry ready for this type of revolution?” 

As a caveat, Morris explained in his 20-plus years within the industry, he’s witnessed an unwillingness on both sides — healthcare and fitness — to integrate on a mass scale. He’d like to see that change. 

“The time for us to work in silos is over,” said Morris. “My dream for the future is to see the fitness industry build a bridge and to become a true partner in the coordinated care for the well-being of our communities. As fitness industry professionals, you are going to have to step out of your comfort zone and take the first step. I challenge each of you reading this to contact your local healthcare system today and simply start the conversation on how you can work together. Convince your local healthcare system you can be a trusted partner. To start, it can be as simple as offering discounts to their employees, which could lead to a more integrated referral program for their patient population.”

For Ochsner Fitness Center, the benefits of being part of a robust health system are clear — especially during a global pandemic. 

Over the past few months the fitness facility has had access to its very own infection control department, which it has worked closely with to develop reopening protocols and safety guidelines. 

Prior to reopening the fitness centers, an infection preventionist toured the facilities to ensure the proper steps were being taken to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases. Recently, infectious control leaders reviewed fitness center policies and shared updated guidance on contact tracing, isolation and quarantine requirements for employees and guests. 

As Ochsner Fitness Center and Ochsner Health continue to navigate the pandemic on the frontlines, the entity’s commitment to improving the health outcomes of the Gulf South region remains steadfast. 

Morris hopes they’re setting an example for the healthcare and fitness industries at large — that by coming together, the overall impact you can make is so much greater.

“With our unique relationships with Ochsner physicians, we are able to capture the ear of all of our future clients through the proxy of a physician and are able to encourage and motivate them in this unique voice,” said Morris. “I believe the ultimate vision of any operator in any avenue of the fitness industry has always been to keep our members well and in turn, prevent future illness through proper diet and exercise. Our medical fitness programs give us the ability to flex those muscles that help us support the well-being of our members.” 

Rachel Zabonick-Chonko

Rachel Zabonick-Chonko is the editor-in-chief of Club Solutions Magazine. She can be reached at rachel@peakemedia.com.

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