How to Start a Practice
by William D. Esteb
It’s a tragic fact that most chiropractic colleges equip students with incredible healing skills, but devote little attention to the mechanics of how students actually exchange these valuable skills on a win/win basis with patients. The result is one of four choices:
Scratch. The most difficult, yet most fulfilling approach is to graduate and start a practice on your own. Make sure you have the money to buy or lease equipment and the small business experience to promote and market it. Suggestions follow below.
Associate. This form of indentured servanthood can be a humbling but powerful learning experience if you hook up with the right doctor with the right intent. It’s a great way to learn how a practice actually works and even create an opportunity to buy all or a portion of the practice.
Buy Out. A retiring doctor or one who simply enjoys the start-up phase of practice can be excellent solution, especially if he’ll carry the paper. Be careful that you don’t allow too much value to be placed on the 3,000 inactive patient files left over from the insurance era, and demand at least a 30 day transition period!
Plan B. Put your dreams on hold by selling shoes, delivering pizza or getting out of chiropractic altogether. This is the tragic result of many colleges allowing faculty members to scare students or not adequately prepare them for the realities of having a practice.
If you have graduated, or will soon graduate, and you’re anxious to have the practice of your dreams, consider some of these ideas for a successful launch.
Practice in your hometown. Give yourself the advantage of knowing the territory where you practice by locating near where you grew up. Sure, some may not think of you as a doctor because they remember you as a snotty-nosed kid from the past, but at least you’ll have some acquaintances to help jumpstart your practice. I’m still amazed that student doctors waste valuable time poring over demographic studies in an attempt to find someplace underserved by chiropractors. If you grew up in a big city and think starting practice in Bluefish, Montana is going to be easy because there aren’t any chiropractors within a 200-miles radius, think again bucko! (Remember, other graduates are looking at the same demographic information.)
Clarify What Business You’re In. Make sure you know what business you’re in. You may practice chiropractic, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re in the chiropractic business! Or even the health business, although your intent may be to help restore the health of your patients. Are you in the lifestyle resumption business? The spine straightening business? The insurance servicing business? The optimal function business? The pain relief business? The relationship building business? What is your intent when accepting a new patient? What kind of outcome are you hoping for when accepting a new patient? And perhaps more important, is it something the public wants? (They may need it, but do they want it? Big difference.)
Acknowledge Your Advantage. I meet many new chiropractors who seem to believe that their youthfulness is a disadvantage. Far from it. You offer several advantages over established chiropractic doctors. First, you can claim to offer state-of-the-art chiropractic. Not the “old school” chiropractic the public may have heard about (or even received!). Second, you can offer immediate openings for new patients. As you establish your practice, new patients can be seen the same day they call. And finally, since you’re new in practice, you can afford to offer the pampered care today’s patients want. “I’ll treat you like a person and not a number or a statistic!” Lose the chip on your shoulder. You offer some strategic advantages because you’re new. Use them.
Become Visible. In the final analysis, unless you have a huge war chest for advertising, getting the new patients necessary to sustain a profitable business is largely about encountering as many strangers as possible. If you’re a shy introvert, either build up the necessary scar tissue by confronting your fear or look for a permanent position as an associate, a teacher or a behind-the-scenes researcher. Delivering chiropractic care works best when the practitioner enjoys the variety and unpredictability of human interactions. Introduce yourself to strangers. Join a civic group or organization whose cause you believe in. Volunteer for jobs nobody wants. Introduce yourself to other small businesses in the vicinity of your practice. Become, as the Disney organization calls it, “aggressively friendly.” Always carry plenty of business cards and visualize the goal of getting rid of at least five of them every day.
Tell the Chiropractic Story. Master the skills of public speaking so you can tell lots of people about chiropractic in a compelling and interesting way. It is a learned skill whose mastery will positively influence every other aspect of your life. The key is to tell the chiropractic story without pointing to yourself. In other words, your mission, as tempting as it is, is not to harvest new patients. Instead, your mission is to tell the truth about chiropractic and the importance of everyone being checked by a chiropractor. The easiest way to “get over yourself” and become a less self-conscious public speaker is to point to the principle of chiropractic, not your practice and how you might gain by converting prospects into patients! Yes, you’ll get new patients because you’re perceived as an expert. New patients are an effect. Master the skills by joining a Toastmasters group and acquiring the leadership skill of public speaking.
Share Information. Remember, the objective is to point to the principles of chiropractic. So send out press releases about your practice, seminars you’ve attended and chiropractic-friendly research that’s been published. Write articles for your local newspaper on a variety of “natural” health care topics. Become perceived as the expert in pediatrics, sports injuries, ergonomics, mattresses, nutrition or some other topic you’re especially passionate about. Become known as a source of interesting and immediately usable information.
Advertise. Forget the full-page Yellow Page ads. Instead, consider a series of small, one-column-by one inch ads in your newspaper. Use eye-catching bold, 3/4” tall type headlines that read “Headaches?” or “Back Pain?” or “All in Your Head?” and similar words and phrases. Then in a couple of lines of smaller type, “Instead of addictive drugs or irreversible back surgery, discover a safe and natural solution. Call for free, no-obligation information. (555) 555-5555.” Hire an answering service (not your office!) to receive the calls, answering them, “Natural Health Solutions, may I help you?” Send them brochures and other information on the subject of your ad, and then forward newsletters, press releases and practice announcements. This can be a relatively inexpensive way of developing a mailing list of people interested in natural health solutions in your area.
Use the Internet. Get your web site up as soon as possible. Not necessarily in the hopes that a potential patient will find you via a search engine by plugging in the word “chiropractor” and the name of the town you practice in, although that might happen. Instead, point to your web site in all of your practice marketing efforts. Use it as a way to calm apprehensive prospective patients and answer questions without actually having to show up in your office. Creating and maintaining a web site is pretty easy these days and very affordable.
Network with Other Practitioners. Be sure to introduce yourself to as many other professionals as possible. Sure, you’ll probably encounter an aloof chiropractor or two threatened by your “competition,” but look past their scarcity mentality. Your goal is to create your own network of resources. Try to locate and establish relationships with midwives, massage therapists, naturopaths, psychologists and even open-minded MDs and pharmacists. Establish your own mailing list of these individuals to whom you can send copies of articles, research papers and simple announcements. Your goal is to make chiropractic (and your practice) familiar. Sure, this is a long-term strategy, and one that may not pay off fully until you refer some of your own patients their way, but get started now. Avoid the temptation to remain isolated in your philosophically pure castle.
Conduct Seminars. As you establish a network of other like-minded practitioners, consider putting on seminars in your area with “natural health care” themes. Rent a meeting room at the local Marriott for a two-hour lecture on the hot topics of the day. Share the speaking responsibilities. Charge admission! Answer questions. Attempt to ferret out people in your community interested in what you have to offer by bringing them together in a safe, public, neutral setting—not your office reception room.
Most of these suggestions cost very little money and simply depend upon using your resources of time and creativity wisely. They require taking a certain amount of “emotional risk” such as rejection, disappointment and confrontation. But they are all doable. And when conducted simultaneously, they can quickly produce a level of awareness and familiarity that can fuel a new practice or rejuvenate an established one. Get started now. There are countless people suffering in your community who need to know that you’re available, that there are alternatives to what they are being told. Do it for them. Risk it for them. They need you.
What a Patient Wants
Originally published in 2002
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