A physical therapy office can be a lot more dynamic these days than a place that helps soothe tendinitis and bad backs.

Grand Island Physical Therapy is a case in point. Owner and physical therapist Russell Certo, 53, one of the coaches for the Buffalo Junior Sabres, came up with an idea for a “medically oriented gym,” or MOG, about a decade ago, while brainstorming with his wife, Elizabeth, a physician’s assistant.

What the business was in 1988 – an 800-square-foot building on Grand Island Boulevard – by 2005 had become a 12,000-square-foot complex that was half physical therapy space, half MOG.

An aerobics classroom for Zumba, Silver Sneakers, pilates, and balance and stability group fitness are part of the medically oriented gym. There’s also a small massage therapy room and larger spaces with free weights and Nautilus Nitro exercise equipment. In 2010, Certo opened a similar site at Sheridan Drive and Elmwood Avenue in the Town of Tonawanda, and created a business association with a nearby family medicine practice.

Both spots, Certo said, are ripe for duplication across the country as the health care system looks to new wellness models as part of the Affordable Care Act. He shared his business model six years ago with about 300 of his peers at the National Physical Therapy Association convention, and more than two dozen of them have formed a cooperative in which they share data to come up with best practices on both the PT and fitness sides.

“We have MOGs now from Maine to Hawaii,” Certo said during a recent interview at his Grand Island location. “There’s 25 sites, all working together. Two of them are hospital systems in Iowa. Seven are here in Western New York. … It’s evolved from maybe a plug-on thing to enhance PT to where maybe it’s the thing where medical specialists, including PT, collaborate under this umbrella.”

Talk about your staff. How many are there, and what do they do?

We have four physical therapists here and two over on Sheridan. We have one PT assistant in each place, and the PT assistants are the only staff people who work both sides of the fence. Then we have support staff.

Talk about the concept of a “medically oriented gym.”

The idea is that from the regular (gym) membership side of things, we can provide expertise of the medical world that’s integrated into the fitness world. If they need to come over here, they can get a quick PT evaluation, so we have the rehab component integrated into the fitness side of things. We can provide an exercise programs around a member’s limitations. It could be a COPD problem. It could be multiple sclerosis. It could be an arthritic knee.

You say BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York reached out to you after you opened in Tonawanda.

They said, ‘OK, you guys are now working together; we want to do a pilot study. We’ll take a look at your patients on the Sheridan Medical Group side with chronic conditions.’ BlueCross BlueShield wanted folks who complied with the fitness part of the model. Out of the first 50, 37 people stayed in the program. The insurance company knew their health care costs in the previous 12 months before these people participated in our study, and then they tracked them for the 12 months they were in our study, and they found, on average, in that first group of 37, the savings for each of them was $4,000 a year.

What other therapies have you found helpful to go along with physical therapy?

Our massage therapist has a good role here from both a patient and a (gym) membership standpoint. You beat your body up, a massage feels good, and it has some restorative qualities. Nutrition is a big piece of this, so in all the MOG sites, everybody has a way to solve nutritional issues. Our exercise physiologists have their master’s degree in nutrition. When you’re talking a new diabetic, they really need to see a registered dietitian, so we have access to one through Sheridan Medical Group.

You’ve been a coach with the Junior Sabres for six years. What sort of injury issues do players deal with?

They have nagging issues. Two kids this year broke bones already, one kid had a meniscus tear and had surgery.

What is the proper place for painkillers when it comes to injuries and chronic conditions?

The number of people who are on painkillers is just unbelievable. Too many people on ’em. Too much of it prescribed. Too many people think that’s the answer. For whatever reason, they’re unwilling to try something different, when we know from research and the science that exercise and movement will reduce the need for painkillers.

Is there an appropriate place for painkillers? Absolutely. Post-traumatic injury, post-surgery, for a very short period of time, but for chronic back pain, in most instances, there are better options. It’s not the doctors’ lack of encouraging patients to try something else, it’s the patient’s unwillingness to try something else. But you can say that about obesity. It’s not the failure of the physician trying to get them to exercise and make better choices when they’re eating, it’s unfortunately the unwillingness of the person to give it a try. Just give it a try.


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