Editor's note: Welcome to our new bi-monthly column focused on highlighting the success of acupuncturists from around the country who would like to share their tips for making an acupuncture practice work and thrive.
Cheryl Suing has learned many lessons about running a successful practice over the years. She began her training by reaching out to others for insight into the acupuncture world while still in college. Today, Suing runs her own successful practice in Long Beach, Calif. with her own unique healing methodology based on her experience and the guidance she received in the past.
Suing has worked in large acupuncture clinics and even traveled abroad to China to complete her post-graduate studies, focusing on GI disorders, oncology, dermatology, and gynecology. Additionally, she holds a Master's Degree in Exercise Physiology. By helping her patients achieve optimal health, Suing hopes to pass on the numerous lessons she has learned to a new generation of acupuncturists trying to learn the ropes. Here are a few things she wants to share about creating a thriving practice by utilizing past experiences and modern day technology.
AT: Tell us about going from an acupuncture graduate to being a successful business owner. What are some of the important steps you took?
CS: Transitioning from the comfort of a learning environment to the often times difficult (much harder than studying for any exam) challenges of owning ones own business can be harsh. Do not be discouraged! First of all none of us does it perfectly – that is not the goal. I did a number of things that set me up to be successful. Firstly, while I was in school for one semester just 4 hours per week I volunteered at a successful acupuncture office to begin learning the ins and outs of running a practice. Lets face it, we learn most of what we need in TCM school to get started and be competent practitioners, but being a business owner and manager is something entirely different. I also established relationships with amazing herb companies like Evergreen Herbs. Having the wisdom behind you of your chosen herb vendors is very important. Doctors Tina and John Chen were there for me from the beginning answering any questions I ever had going out of their way to be supportive. As a new practitioner this was an aspect of my practice that was of the utmost importance. I have since grown to be a very confident herbalist. As a result of the continued support from all of my vendors I am able to deliver not only the highest quality, but the most accurate herbal protocols for my patients as they move through their healing process. And I would say the other really impactful thing I did was I created my own model by creating standards in my practice. When we are new practitioners it is very easy to want to give our patients the world in their first treatment or two. What we discover with experience is that there are as many different healing paths as there are people and part of what we do is identify that path in a realistic fashion and lay it out both short-term and long-term (if needed). I created a methodology or way of doing things that made my practice flow business wise that also works for the patients. I'm not saying I treat every patient the same, but rather I created ways of doing things such as clinic operations, patient protocols, patient education that minimized the time spent attending to the business portion of my practice and allowed me more time with patients. Technically and from a business standpoint if an acupuncturist isn't in the treatment room we aren't making money. Most importantly isn't this is where we really love to be?!
AT: What advice would you give to those who have just graduated from acupuncture school?
CS: Start simple. Spend a year or two working in another clinic with other acupuncturists learning more and practicing. You may not make the big bucks right out of the gate, but having time to learn how to run a small business on top of managing many patients each week, week after week is very important. It's like training for the marathon, do the 10K first then go for the big one!
AT: As an acupuncturist, what is the latest trend in your practice that you think is affecting the way acupuncturists do business these days?
CS: Interestingly enough I would say electronic appointment scheduling seems to be very appealing to patients these days. I have always been more of a traditional practitioner in that my practice has always evolved around patient referral by word of mouth, and people calling to schedule an appointment. Although that is still very common, now many of my referrals come from the Internet on sites such as Yelp and many people email and even text to initiate first contact.
AT: You have worked in a bigger practice with a large staff, you now have a smaller practice. What are the advantages to downsizing?
CS: I really enjoy having a connection with the people who walk into my office. Without looking at anyone's charts I know their name, why they are there, what ankle or shoulder to ask about or do I have them on herbs and how are they doing? When I was seeing 20+ people/day it was at times challenging to be personal with my patients. I believe one of the greatest aspects about our medicine is we consider the whole person in mind, body, and spirit and allowing a bit of time to connect with people so they can connect with themselves helps to facilitate their progress. Not being in a rush and being able to be in the moment with people is really powerful. Please know it is my belief that acupuncture just works and requires no talking to get its results, but people sure do appreciate being heard, respected and engaged in their own healing process.
AT: What are the biggest health issues you are seeing affect your patient base the most?
CS: Unfortunately I do not see many people these days walking around in radiant health. Many folks complain of being caught up in what I see as the classic American yin yang imbalance: too hungry (overeating but under nourished), too angry (disconnected from self), too lonely (disconnected from others), and too tired (over extended). This can set the scene for so many disharmonies that we see in our clinics ranging from digestive disorders to hormone imbalances and even to pathologies that seem to be broad spread and on setting at younger ages than ever before.
AT: What are some of the Traditional Chinese Medicine principles you follow to achieve success?
CS: Firstly, I incorporate all five branches of TCM in my practice: Acupuncture, Herbal Medicine, Tuina, Nutrition and Qigong (or some appropriate form of exercise). I also diagnose my patients using pulse and tongue diagnosis, organ pattern differentiation and eight principle differentiation to name a few.
AT: As an acupuncture business owner what have been some of the mistakes you have learned from?
CS: For a long time I was resistant to having a web site. Two years ago we constructed a simple website and are now enjoying its function so much we are about to upgrade it. It goes without saying at this point that when people can authenticate you at least in their initial investigation as they are choosing among the sea of possibilities for a practitioner having a nice looking and informative web site is very beneficial.
AT: What do you think is the most important business lesson most acupuncturists need to learn early on?
CS: That is not an easy question to answer…I think start small and grow as you learn. I learned early on that I needed to spend time asking lots of questions of other practitioners who went before me. In my first year I was on the phone on a daily basis asking every question under the sun, not only to other practitioners, but to those who knew about business. I surrounded myself with a knowledgeable CPA, bookkeeper, and insurance biller. I had a burning desire to be a good practitioner and I knew if I was going to be that I was going to have to have the help of those professions as well.
AT: What tips would you give a new acupuncturist trying to build their practice into a thriving practice with lots of new patients?
CS: Keep it simple!! Do not try to be all things to all people. Know what you know and stay inside the envelope of what you are capable of. I started with one patient and offered the best service I knew how. I just focused on that one patient rather than asking “where are the 50 patients? That one turned into two and then three and so on. Again, I learned so much from seeking direction from the experienced practitioners, herb companies, and many others. The great thing about our work is that everyday is so exciting because we get so many opportunities to learn new things about business and medicine. Then one day we get to pass it on!