GPs urged to refer more to exercise physiologists for effective exercise interventions 

Victoria University researchers highlighted in a recent study that GPs are yet to be convinced of the benefits of referrals to Accredited Exercise Physiologists, despite the significant role that exercise physiology services and physical activity play in improving population health.

With more than 11 million Australians reportedly living with chronic diseases that would benefit from exercise, the paper, published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, found that only a tiny fraction of GPs refer patients to exercise physiologists. 

“Exercise & Sports Science Australia (ESSA) strongly encourages that all medical professionals undertake further education about the role of exercise physiologists in the prevention and management of chronic disease, and for exercise to be included in to standard protocols for GPs,” says Anita Hobson-Powell, ESSA Chief Executive Officer.

“Accredited Exercise Physiologists (AEPs) are university-qualified allied health professionals who are equipped with the knowledge and skills to design, deliver and evaluate safe and effective exercise interventions for people with chronic medical conditions.”

The data shows that over the seven-year period (2009-16), out of more than 680,000 patient encounters from more than 7,000 GPs, there were only 619 referrals to exercise physiologists, or 0.91 per 1000 GP-patient encounters. 

“Although referral rates to exercise physiologists increased over the years, our analysis shows there is a need to educate GPs, and to advocate for exercise medicine to be embedded into medical schools,” reported lead author Associate Professor Melinda Craike, of Victoria University’s College of Sport and Exercise Science.

Almost 50% of Australians have at least 1 of 8 common chronic conditions (cancer, cardiovascular disease, mental health, arthritis, back pain, lung disease, asthma, diabetes), a 5% increase over the last ten years. However, exercise can assist with the prevention of risk factors for chronic disease, with 32% of Australia’s total disease burden attributed to modifiable risk factors. 

Physical activity is also beneficial for mental health through preventing or reducing the impact of mental health conditions, as well as reducing stress and anxiety. Results of the 2018 HUNT study stated that 12% of cases of depression could have been prevented by just one hour of exercise a week.

“Australia is one of only a few countries where allied healthcare professionals with specialised university education and training in exercise prescription and delivery (AEPs) provide services within a government-run healthcare system (Medicare). Australian GPs need to better utilise the services of, and refer patients on to, an Accredited Exercise Physiologist.”

Although a previous study investigated the factors that influenced doctors to query their patients' levels of physical activity, it was found that a GPs own physical activity level was linked with this frequency.

“Whilst it’s great to see that those doctors who engage in exercise themselves are querying about physical activity, more needs to be done across the board to encourage and educate all GPs on discussing physical activity levels with their patients.”

Education is certainly available with Exercise is Medicine® Australia offering complimentary online and face-to-face workshops to educate GPs about the role of physical activity in the prevention and management of chronic disease. The workshop is accredited with the RACGP, APNA and the ACRRM and provides an understanding of the role of AEPs in chronic disease prevention and management.

Last month, Exercise Right, ESSA’s public awareness platform, introduced its newest campaign, Exercise Right for Doctors, in hopes to encourage GPs to make a habit of asking their clients how much they move, which received a wide range of positive feedback and engagement. 

“Exercise Right for Doctors is also about motivating the general public to talk to their GP about how exercise can improve their health and well-being, and whether they require a referral to an exercise professional, such as an Accredited Exercise Physiologist, as we know GPs aren’t asking the questions themselves.”

Educating GPs about the benefits of physical activity for specific population groups, including older adults, people with mental health conditions and people from non-English speaking backgrounds is vital, and educating and reminding them of the important relationship between a GP and AEP will benefit all Australians and their health.

To find your local Accredited Exercise Physiologist, visit the ESSA website.