by Honora Lee Wolfe
I always encourage my students to choose a specialty for their practice. There are many good reasons to do this. First and foremost, being a General Practitioner is the most difficult type of practice to run! Why? Because it’s far more difficult to learn something about everything than to learn everything about one thing. If you are a GP, you at least have to know where to find information about almost any and every ailment under the sun, which is stressful and requires you to own a lot of reference books! On the other hand, when you specialize in a limited universe of ailments, it is easier to get really good, really fast. When you get good at what you do, people find out about it and the universe (including other acupuncture practitioners!) starts sending you patients.
Let’s say you have decided to specialize in sports acupuncture (or gynecology, or pediatrics, or dermatology) and you need to double the size of your practice to produce the income you require. The truth is that you are in a better position than the general practice guy down the street! Why? Because you can probably get the guy down the street (as well as lots of other types of practitioners) to send you referrals for your specialty. If he or she does general practice or only face-lift acupuncture or gynecology and your practice specializes in sports medicine, you can actually help to build each other’s practices quite comfortably with no competition for each other’s patients. Also, you will be less likely to experience practitioner burn-out when you get good at your work. It becomes easy and joyful to practice when you usually know what will really work for your group of patients! Below are some ways to market your specialty, maintain your integrity, and offer great service to your community, all at the same time.
A. Set goals. Many great thinkers have agreed that it is not as hard to get what you want as it is to decide what you want. Do some simple math and determine how many patients you need to see each week to reach your personal goals, both in terms of finances and your time-and-thought capacity. How many new patients do you want each week or month? How many patient visits, on average, do you want to see each patient for optimum care? Write this all down. Share these numbers with your front desk staff. The more mental energy is focused on reaching your goals, the faster and more effortlessly they can happen. I put this idea first, because I know it to be the most important place to start for success with any business, organization, or project.
B. Send out a letter (with brochure and card) announcing the opening of your practice to everyone who might be able to refer to you. That includes all other area acupuncturists, naturopaths, orthopedic physicians, chiropractors, private and public sports clubs, exercise and climbing gyms, sporting goods stores, bicycle repair shops, private golf and tennis clubs, you name it. If it is connected to the world of sport, it is a potential source of referral for you. Offer the other practitioners a free consultation or treatment to get to know you or, for the clubs and gyms, a free talk and demonstration for their members. Make sure your brochure and letter tells them why they should be interested in acupuncture in “what’s in it for them” terms and proofread each letter, brochure, or flyer carefully! Then request referrals from them and offer to refer to them in return.
C. One way to let everyone know about your practice is to create a monthly practice e-letter that is sent out to other practitioners rather than to prospective patients (and put on our website and posted to your Facebook page, or placed on your or other peoples blogs). What would this e-newsletter include?
1. Any news about your specialty that’s been in the general press
2. Classes, lectures, or other special events you are involved in
3. Any new practice techniques you’ve recently learned
4. Research you’ve been involved in or learned about that is relevant to your practice (or theirs)
5. Information about a great herbal formula that you’ve recently started to use and how you use it in your practice.
Remember that we get by giving. If you want other practitioners to send you patients in your specialty, it helps if you keep in touch with them in ways that both serve them and remind them of your expertise.
D. Another way to create interest in your work while giving back to your community is to write articles for local or regional publications, or even the newsletters of those private clubs and organizations we talked about in #A above. There is no shortage of magazines, e-publications, or newsletters for almost any interest group or subculture that you can name. If you do sports acupuncture, for example, you might write an article for the local running group newsletter about how acupuncture treatment can shorten recovery time from injuries or increase endurance. If you really can write well, why not send it off to a national publication? Who knows what sort of publicity will come from it and why shouldn’t you be the expert they turn to with questions about Chinese medicine? Keep the articles simple and relatively short, with bullet points (“Six Ways to Shorten Recovery Time After a Race,” etc.) and not just paragraphs. So, if you can write at all, write for anyone who will put it into ink!
E. If you like to give talks, get out there! Good speakers are always in demand. Again, every private sports organization and club could be a good source of speaking engagements. Then, if you become really expert at your specialty, you can teach other professionals, both of which continues to grow your sources of referral.
F. Practice what you preach. If you like sports, join a sports organization or club and participate regularly. Then when you hear the person riding his bicycle next to you complaining about tendonitis, you have a perfect opportunity for a natural, unforced conversation about what you do. As someone who is a participant in the organization, you already have more credibility.
G. Write an e-book on your area of specialty written for the general public. How can acupuncture help athletes? That should be good for several possible chapters! Offer the book as a free download from your website, or, sell it for £10 to be subtracted from their first visit to your office. You can include information about your book in your e-newsletter that is sent out to other practitioners, or a monthly e-newsletter that is sent out to your patients.
H. Become involved with at least five or more centers of influence. You are very likely already involved with several: your family and your patients are two centers of influence. So what about professional associations? They can be a great source of referrals. What about a local community service organization or coaching in a children’s football league? Even giving a few hours per week or month can put you in contact with lots of new people who might otherwise never meet you. If you belong to a church, join a committee that puts you in contact with as many people as possible. If you have children, join the parents’ organization or participate in activities with lots of people-contact time. Smile; talk to people; make sure you always have your business cards; and don’t allow yourself to be shy! Become a “central hub person” within as many groups as possible.
I. If you are shy, remember this rule. The easiest way to talk to people is to get them to do the talking. All you have to do to become a brilliant conversationalist is to get people to talk about themselves and their problems, needs, worries, joys, aches and pains. This skill allows you to find out the person’s real needs, fears, and desires. The better you get at asking open-ended questions and then listening attentively to the answers, the easier it may be to get over your shyness and the better you are a discovering if your services might be a good fit for them. Also, when you really listen to people and they feel your presence, curiosity about them and their concerns, it is hugely attractive to people. It makes it easy for them to want to become you patient. Just by listening, you may have gone a long way toward healing them just by being a good listener.
J. When you meet people, think to yourself as you look at them, meet them, shake their hand, “I can help you; my skills as an acupuncturist could bring you to better health.” The more you think those kinds of thoughts, you’ll be surprised at how many people will also believe that you can help them!
K. If you don’t have any sales skills, read a few books and practice in the mirror. What friendly reply will you have when someone says, “Oh, my sister tried acupuncture and it did not help her,” or “A friend told me it can hurt,” or “I’ll have to think about that, but I’m not interested now”? A few basic skills that allow you to turn a prospect into a real client will go a long way toward initially building your practice.
L. When a patient comes in to your clinic, make sure that your inside reality matches the wonderful outside image you have created. I suggest you walk through each area of your clinic and think critically about each part of a patient’s experience from the initial phone call all the way through to completion of their therapy. What could you do better without creating unrealistic additional demands on yourself? Does your phone get answered professionally within 2-3 rings? Are the bathrooms clean? Are your clothes appropriate and your shoes polished? Are the walls freshly painted? Are the walls decorated with pleasant and appropriate art, posters, calligraphy, and informative notices about products, services, or upcoming events? Do you have good brochures about what your clinic services? Do you run your practice on time? Is the waiting area a comfortable and interesting place to hang out? Have the people who answer your phones been trained on exactly how to answer the five or six most common questions asked by prospective patients? Do you call each patient within 24 hours of their first treatment, just to check and see how they are doing? Can you under-promise and over-deliver, but still maintain professional boundaries with each patient? Does your clinic look and feel professional at the same time as human and inviting? If you were to choose two or three small changes to improve your clinic’s performance from the patient’s perspective, what would those be?
M. Invest in yourself. Take classes, read books, attend seminars on your specialty. Don’t allow yourself to become intellectually lazy. Regular study and thought about your practice keeps you excited about your work, and your practice remains fresh and interesting to you. This type of passion is attractive to your patients and the universe rewards you for your expenditure of time and money many fold.
N. Charge what you need to charge to be prosperous and comfortable in your life. You can know this number by some relatively easy math. When you have your personal financial needs met, you will be a more effective practitioner and able to give your patients more energy. This may mean you need to raise your rates, but most practitioners tell me that they get more patients every time they raise their rates, not fewer! Some of the busiest practitioners I know are the ones who charge the most. It’s something to think about. Remember that people don’t want cheap healthcare, they want effective healthcare. And if you are good at your specialty, you will be more effective than the average practitioner.
Whew! That’s a lot of suggestions for building your practice and you cannot do all of them. But if you commit yourself and follow through with even one of the above suggestions, you’ll be surprised at the positive impact it will have on you practice. I guarantee it.
Finally, remember that everyone becomes someone’s patient someday. Why shouldn’t they be yours?
Honora Lee Wolfe is the co-author of Points for Profit: The Essential Guide to Practice Success for Acupuncturists. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.