After his wellness center didn’t take off, Raleigh general practitioner Brooks Wilkins found his niche in helping RDU airport employees stay healthier.
By Jen Ferris
MedPage Today/ North Carolina Health News
In 2008, E. Brooks Wilkins was faced with having to shut down the wellness and residential weight-loss center he founded for people with tens of thousands of dollars to spend on 30-day intensive medically supervised weight loss.
Wilkins had invested several hundred thousand dollars, five years and much of his energy into building the Institute for Lifestyle and Weight Management next door to his small family-medicine practice in North Raleigh.
“You think everybody wants to lose weight, everybody wants to get healthy, everybody wants to get well,” Wilkins said, chuckling. “We found out that was not necessarily the case.”
“When the economic problems hit hard, people said, ‘I’ll cut off my gym memberships. I’ll go walk instead,’” said William Wilkins, the doctor’s son, who runs operations at ILWM.
Six years later, fewer than two dozen patients cross its threshold each month. And yet business is back in the black.
“Our evolution to primary worksite wellness was out of necessity,” William Wilkins said, sitting in a gym filled with specialty workout equipment for morbidly obese patients that goes mostly unused.
Fortunately, refusing to close the wellness center paid off, even though monthly memberships can be measured in the dozens. Nonetheless, both Wilkins report that ILWM is now pulling in several hundred thousand dollars a year thanks to one savvy business idea and a six-figure annual contract with Raleigh-Durham International Airport.
“We really weren’t looking at it as, ‘Hey let’s grow a corporate client,’” William Wilkins said. “When the economy started taking a downturn and customers stopped putting money for gyms on credit cards, we had to look somewhere else.”
A Raleigh native, Brooks Wilkins graduated from UNC Medical School in 1975. After completing a family-medicine residency at UNC, he started practicing in Eden, but then moved his family home to Raleigh for the school system.
Wilkins said he began to think of a wellness center in the late 1990s as he watched his daughter struggle with her weight and feeling self-conscious at commercial gyms.
“My daughter was obese and was never comfortable being in a gym environment, and so my goal was, there were other people out there just like her who needed that same sort of assistance and needed an environment in which they could work out and get healthy,” he said.
In 2003, after a six-month battle with lymphoma, his daughter passed away. “It was devastating.” But Wilkins said the tragedy deepened his interest in creating an environment where people of all fitness and weight levels could work toward health.
There was local precedent: The Triangle was home to the renowned residential weight-loss centers the Rice Diet Clinic and the Duke Diet and Fitness Center.
Wilkins put everything he had into building ILWM, handed the reins over to his son and went back to his clinic, where he encourages his patients to check out the gym next door.
“It’s nice from a wellness perspective that we try to promote in the practice to have this next door so that people can see and visit the location and make a decision about what to do in regards to their own health and well-being,” Wilkins said.
Early on, ILWM experimented with various business models. At one point, they even partnered with Gold’s Gym, offering memberships that covered weight-loss counseling and personalized workout plans.
According to William Wilkins, the idea to start offering residential weight-loss services in addition to the wellness program came from a series of Google searches for “residential weight-loss” that landed on the ILWM website for lack of a better option.
This serendipitous search engine optimization, coupled with the success of the other two local weight-loss centers, led the Wilkins to add an apartment building to their holdings for ILWM patients.
Although it was initially successful, the ILWM residential program closed in 2011, after only four years.
Faced with the prospect of closing down the ILWM fitness center too, the Wilkins came up with a plan to keep the business afloat. They designed flexible corporate-wellness packages and marketed their business as an all-in-one worksite wellness solution.
Capitalizing on ILWM’s affiliation with Wilkins’ medical practice, they could offer a service that other corporate-wellness providers in the region did not, like physician tracking of employee cardiovascular disease and diabetes risk factors. And that’s exactly how the Wilkins landed their biggest contract.
“It’s been a huge undertaking,” Brooks Wilkins said, “one with a huge financial as well as time commitment. You have to have some sort of motivating passion to keep you doing it.”
In 2011, Cleon Umphrey, RDU’s chief human resources officer, was struggling to manage a budget laden with 8 percent annual increases in insurance coverage for his less-than-fit employees. He needed a radical solution, so he started researching local wellness programs.
Umphrey said ILWM stood out because it was affiliated with a medical practice. “This gave us the ability to have employees in a space where they were in an environment where if they went to work out, they were where medical providers were accessible,” he said.
Despite some data that indicate corporate-wellness programs might be a waste of money, Umphrey reports an annual 3 percent return on RDU’s $120,000 annual investment. He pays about $600 for each of the 200 employees who choose to participate in the program.
Umphrey said that only 10 percent of employees decline the benefit, and they’ve seen the wellness program pay off.
“The industry has said that it is hard to look at return on investment for wellness,” Umphrey said. “When we look at the numbers related to the cost of health care and seeing the change in how our employees utilize health care, we’ve seen a number of our employees shift from PPO to qualified high-deductible plans where they manage their health care.”
The bang for RDU’s buck includes two gyms at RDU, where trainers from ILWM teach classes five days a week; health scans; access to dieticians and health coaches; and diabetes and heart disease counseling.
ILWM and the Wilkins
RDU is ILWM’s largest contract, but they also have a variety of smaller wellness offerings. Most businesses opt for a basic biometric-assessment package for their employees.
Although Brooks Wilkins was heavily involved in the founding of ILWM, his son handles all of the day-to-day operations. Most weekdays, the pair chat about business as their paths cross in the corridor that connects the clinic and the gym.
The younger Wilkins handles client relations and generating revenue and manages the six-person staff. Brooks Wilkins still sees 18 to 22 patients a day in the clinic he shares with three other physicians, two physician assistants and a diabetes counselor.
Brooks Wilkins said he’s happy his reach is growing in the Raleigh area, and that his wellness journey has changed him too. After a massive stroke, he recently had a carotid stent placed and realized he needed to make lifestyle changes to continue working.
His pedometer goal is 10,000 steps a day. “I was on a mission to make sure I got well so I could be back to seeing patients. And that mission was I needed to be able to walk, walk a lot, and get my weight down. I tried to accomplish that in a short period of time and was pretty successful.”
“There’s nothing more honorable than being able to practice medicine and be able to take care of people,” Wilkins said. “I try to use every resource from my past to provide that care for individuals.”
This story is part of a partnership between MedPage Today and North Carolina Health News. The collaboration will make it possible for us to publish regular profiles of health care professionals from North Carolina.[/box]