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Just What the Doctor Ordered

Changing demographics and the economy are helping ensure a rosy prognosis for health franchises.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

America is health-obsessed. Don't believe me? Turn on the news, open the latest issue of Time magazine, glance at billboards, and you'll be bombarded with stories, tips and ads for the latest products, inventions and procedures that help consumers do everything from lose weight to live longer.

Franchises aren't blind to this fixation. According to Entrepreneur's Franchise 500, the number of health franchise units grew by 62.8 percent between 2001's and 2002's rankings. Growth in all other categories was less than 11 percent.

Prospective franchisees can take advantage of the health craze by doing everything from selling medical supplies to providing immunizations to running weight loss clinics. And, with most of these businesses targeting the treasured baby boomer demographic, the prognosis for these franchises looks good.

"Over the last decade or so, our society has been relatively affluent, so people now have the luxury of moving on from worrying about necessities to looking at enhancements like fitness and alternative treatments," says Robert Field, associate professor of health policy at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia.

LA Weight Loss Centers Inc. is one franchise taking advantage of this emerging trend. Founded in 1989, the company offers a weight control program that allows clients to eat real food and come in for counseling sessions without an appointment.

Hal Levin, senior vice president of marketing for LA Weight Loss Centers, sees his business affected by demographics and a greater access to information. "There's a great public knowledge of obesity, which translates into an increase in business for anybody involved in the dieting [industry]," he says. "Also, baby boomers now have the disposable income and are at the age where they're watching weight a lot more than when they were in their 20s and 30s."

Even a slumping economy hasn't stopped clients from visiting LA Weight Loss Centers. With increased awareness of the effects of obesity, customers regard diet programs as more than just another enhancement. This business "has not been affected by the economy, because weight loss is now a health issue. It's not a matter of somebody waking up one day and saying, 'I want to look better'-it's about eating healthy," says Ray Thoma, a 41-year-old LA Weight Loss Center franchisee in Omaha, Nebraska.

Another franchise benefiting from increased access to health information is Passport Health. Founded in 1994 by Fran Lessans, the company began providing tourists with immunizations and travel-related health information but has branched out into the adult immunization market. "After September 11, we saw our flu business escalate. People wanted get a flu vaccination so they could differentiate between anthrax and the flu," Lessans says. Business for Lessans quadrupled.

Even with the growth of its adult vaccine service, Passport Health's main function is to provide immunizations and information to world travelers. "It's a necessary industry," says Karen Kluge, a 45-year-old franchisee in Boca Raton, Florida, who reports that, after a temporary drop off, the number of people traveling to exotic places was again on the rise, resulting in a need for travel immunizations and education.

Servicing a completely different set of needs is Women's Health Boutique, a retailer of women's medical supplies. The company sells products for women dealing with breast cancer, pregnancy and other health issues. While the franchise continues to expand, David Handler, senior vice president of ICED, franchisor of Women's Health Boutique, stresses that this opportunity isn't for everyone. "We certainly understand not everyone is cut out for this business. Dealing with sick people takes a very special person," he says. "We have a strong group of owners from a medical background, and they understand the compassion that's required to do this every day."

All this focus on health is a good sign for franchisees and their customers. "The [increasing popularity] of these franchises indicates people are more and more interested in spending money on their health," Field says. "In a lot of ways, it's a very positive trend."

For our special listing on health-care franchises, click here.