While attending acupuncture school, I was disappointed at the irrelevant nature of business classes that were offered to nascent practitioners, most of whom would eventually need to run a business on their own.
Most acupuncture schools offer one business course that is mostly focused on such matters as teaching students how to write resumés. Those classes should be replaced by courses that will train practitioners in the business arts, such as banking, bookkeeping, herbal inventory and internal cash/collection control, to name just a few.
Medical doctors, veterinarians and podiatrists only need to know their trade, as they will have jobs waiting for them at hospitals, and will have office managers if they want to open up a clinic later in their career. Acupuncturists usually do not have this option, and have to open up a sole practitioner business.
As a result, they need to know how to run a business. A common statistic is that only 20 percent of those who graduate from acupuncture school actually go on to become long-term practicing acupuncturists. Out of those 80 percent who leave this career, what percentage left due to lacking business acumen? Is there a way to improve business education in acupuncture schools to increase the amount of acupuncturists to stay in their field by having thriving practices? Also, who bears the responsibility for the lack of business education if one cannot run a clinic like a business? Is the onus on the schools, which already have an obligation to teach 5,000 years of TCM in several years of a Master's degree program, or is the onus on the practitioner to learn once they complete their TCM training?
In my view, a successful healing practice consists of three "cornerstones" as I call them: 1) business acumen, 2) the ability to heal, and 3) good bedside manner. Hopefully all three live powerfully within us, but what if we are lacking one of these cornerstones? In this article, we will focus on business acumen, and I will follow up in the future with the other cornerstones. Marketing and management, which are both sub-types of business acumen, will be written about in future articles.
People often comment how far a jump I made from a Bachelor's degree in business management to acupuncture school. I consistently answer that it doesn't matter if I am an acupuncturist or a plumber; everyone needs to know how to run a business. While in acupuncture school, I was managing a medical spa, and decided to change course and go for the apprentice program.
I realized how much money I could save foregoing an extra three years in school, so I called up several acupuncturists offering them my business savvy in exchange for a mentor. At the Mandala Clinic in Boulder, Colo., I reinvented the inventory system, put new marketing plans in place, created partnerships with other businesses and practitioners, and balanced checkbooks, all in exchange for learning about bedside manner and healing skills from a gifted practitioner who has been in business as an acupuncturist for almost 10 years.
One of the reasons that I champion the apprenticeship program is because I feel like I learned so much more than I ever would have at school. While putting marketing practices in place, I learned what had failed in the past, and made my own mistakes along the way. By balancing checkbooks, I learned what made fiscal sense in a clinic so that I would know how I wanted to run my own healing practice in the future. By managing inventory, I learned how much to charge for raw herbal formulas, and what brands were preferential. Did it make sense to carry 10 different companies' products; or could I just stock three companies'? The list of things I learned goes on and on.
What happens when you lack business savvy?
Let's say you have great bedside manner but lack business skills. Without pulling in your boundaries in a business-like way, you might as well just charge for a therapy session. You won't have time for needles and herbs. As acupuncturists, we are not therapists. How will you be able to charge people if you run out of time listening, and haven't taken their pulse, let alone needled them in 45 minutes?
Let's say you are a gifted healer, but again, lack business skills. I see healers who have little business acumen, and the only way they make it work is to have an office manager. The office manager keeps them on track time-wise, collects money, and re-books appointments. Healers who lack business savvy may feel funny collecting money, touching it, swiping a credit card, telling someone what they owe, letting someone know what herbs they need, asking them to make another appointment, etc. A lot of times, they do too many trades and undercharge when they do have a paying client. How can they pay back their student loans with these poor business practices? More importantly, how can anyone thrive like that?
If one of your three cornerstones is over-developed, another will suffer. Or if you are business savvy, but have poor bedside manner, you will scare people away, or worse, people may mistake you for someone looking for a few bucks, rather than a healer. They will view you as a shrewd doctor looking for profits, and your inner healer will not get to work, because your potential clients will run from you. If you are too savvy a businessperson, and a weak healer, you will not get the healing results from patients, and they will not return.
Once you combine your inner healer with your business savvy, you will realize that you cannot heal without your business persona. Your inner entrepreneur must also match your healing abilities, or else you won't have a business. Why, you might ask? If you give away your products, do too many trades, and don't charge what you are worth, there will be no patients coming for healing, because there will be no clinic!
All these cornerstones work together. If you believe that certain herbs will help your patient immensely, it will be your healing persona that knows it, and your professional bedside manner persona that helps explain why the patient needs it, and your business savvy that has it in the clinic to sell the herbs at a reasonable retail rate. If you do not have the space to have a full herbal inventory, or the finances to invest in a full inventory, it might be wise to the client pay in advance for the product, then order it, and give it to the patient on the next visit - payment in advance for herbs is always prudent.
In the Present
For practicing acupuncturists wishing to enhance their business skills, there are many options that are now available. There are several books, such as "E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don't Work and What to Do About It" By Michael E. Gerber as well as the book: "Points for Profit," which would be great for any practitioner or upcoming practitioner to read. There are consultants to learn from, continuing education classes at local colleges and meet-up groups for local entrepreneurs. Graduation is just the beginning of a lifetime of education.
In order to prevent another generation of acupuncturists lacking business savvy, I would love to see acupuncture schools offering substantive business classes that teach more than how to write a resumé. Here are some things I'd like to see taught for all healing schools, including acupuncture, Rolfing, naturopathy, massage schools, etc:
Marketing techniques, including during holidays/seasons, off-season. For instance Christmas specials, Mother's or Father's day specials, Spring specials, etc.
How to offer a trade, and when (as in only when you need it), but limiting them to a reasonable amount per month. Trading for money is preferable, remember!
How to talk about acupuncture when a prospective client is asking questions. One must stand confident with the answers!
Knowing what we can heal, and what our limitations are. When to refer out and where to refer: Naturopath, Rolfer, M.D., O.D., Homeopath, etc.
Creating partnerships with other practitioners, healers, offices, businesses, etc. How to think in abundance as a healer, knowing that you can't treat everyone for everything, it is amazing to make partnerships with other practitioners, and businesses like yoga studios, and - if you take health insurance - corporations that provide health care to employees.
How to balance your checkbook and spot tax write-offs, and some basic accounting.
How to stand up for what you're worth (per session), and when to use a sliding scale. There is an art to negotiating price scheduling with your clients. This is something that can be taught and developed with practice. In the school clinic, students never have to worry about what is being charged and how much is being charged.
How to find local health-fairs, etc.
If you can nail all your cornerstones: you might never have to write that resumé again!
Joni Renee Zalk is a licensed acupuncturist from Colorado, currently pursuing an academic research Master's degree in Chinese Medicine at Middlesex University in London. The thesis of her research degree is titled: The Challenges of Integrating Acupuncture into Contemporary Health Care in the UK.
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