In my last article, I referred to the challenges of getting medical doctors to take you seriously. Some readers asked me to expand on this important topic. How do you enlarge your practice and develop a network of physicians to refer their patients to you?
The three keys to building or expanding your practice relate to your own abilities: your capability, your affability and your availability.Let's consider each of these qualities in turn:
Capability: How good are you? How confident are you that you're as good as you can be? How broad is your knowledge base? I don't see this as a problem with most OM practitioners. I know hundreds of acupuncturists and most are continually updating and improving their skills and knowledge through CEU programs. Standards for Oriental medicine education are now higher than ever before.
Affability: How approachable are you? You don't have to be an extrovert, but you have to be pleasant rather than intimidating, irritating or unduly shy. You may or may not like to speak in public, but you must convey an attitude that radiates a spirit of being helpful, supportive and caring. Again, most practitioners I know radiate personal warmth and a nurturing spirit that both patients and physicians would find appealing.
Availability: How reachable are you? If you are getting a practice started or if you are growing it, you must showcase your availability for all other professionals to see. It's the most important attribute you have in terms of developing and expanding your practice. We all know people who are hard to reach and are not meticulous in returning calls. Many doctors are known for this negative quality. This is a serious mistake.
Your office telephone message is critical. Notify callers of your hours, and then be there or have a receptionist. Start your office hours on time every morning, and get there early. Answer all calls promptly that came in during the previous evening. I've seen practitioners who are not careful about this. You should return all calls on the answering machine as quickly as possible; within an hour during the 9-5 workday. Never leave any calls unanswered.
If you do not have a receptionist, do you need one? It might be worth the cost in the long run to hire one. Practitioners who run the whole show themselves are often limiting their growth potential. Around-the-clock availability is not required or expected, but the more available you are, the faster your practice will grow. You might consider Saturday and evening clinics to increase your availability.
An old saying we all remember is, "Always put the horse before the cart." If you are growing your practice, your horse is your availability, not your capability or affability. They follow in the cart behind the horse. Your availability is up front. Then, as you conduct your practice, your intense involvement and caring will be gratifying to each patient and will please the referring person who sent them to you. Your skills, knowledge and success with your treatments will further enhance your good reputation. This good reputation is the most valuable thing you possess.
Dialogue with the referring doctor: Ask about the patient, about their own practice, tell them who you are and about your practice. Reach out to the doctors practicing in the community where you live. Your own enhanced livelihood depends on these contacts. Develop a catch phrase that clearly but briefly describes in layman's terms what you do. When asked what you do for a living, do not respond: "I'm an acupuncturist!" Words ending in "-ist" often convey a negative feeling. Some may think concern about this is overdoing the power of words, but I don't think so, especially in terms of first impressions. At least for now, we seem to be stuck with the term licensed acupuncturist but I greatly prefer the designation Oriental medicine practitioner.
I suggest you think of something broadly descriptive and appealing to a non-informed person. Someone coined the phrase, "elevator speech" for this short explanation that you could give to someone in an elevator while it is going from the first to the 10th floor in a hotel. You might say, "I specialize in Chinese medical treatments." This will lead to further questions, such as, "What treatments?" Then you can say, "Acupuncture, which is the insertion of fine needles in energetic points on the body, plus herbal treatments." Anyone with the semblance of an open mind will then be intrigued by what you do, and will ask more specific questions, such as, "Does that really work?" Or, they may react by saying, "I've heard that's very effective." If you are actually in an elevator, get off on the same floor as the person you're talking to, briefly complete the conversation and present your card.
Prepare a brochure that describes what you do best. It may simply be a black-and-white tri-fold. I suggest you invest and pay for a color brochure, which is not expensive for this size handout. Create nice business cards that suit your personality and yet convey professionalism and competence. Use color on your business cards. Spend some money to get what you want.
Armed with your brochure and your business cards, visit the offices of all the medical practitioners in your neighborhood. Talk about what you are doing in your practice. Leave them some of your brochures. Remember that doctors, nurses, osteopaths, and other therapists want their own file of important telephone numbers to contain other special practitioners to whom they can refer patients. They all enjoy saying to a needy patient, "Mrs. Jones, I know a professional who I believe can really help you with this problem." You may be sure the patient will be listening carefully and will be grateful for this recommendation.
Listen to your patients: One recurring complaint of patients going to see their Western medicine doctor these days is they don't really feel seen. According to one study, the doctor interrupts the patient after an average of 23 seconds. This interruption distracts the patient and devalues the unique story they want to tell the doctor about themselves. You can do better. No matter how busy your day, you must shut out this turmoil when you are with your patient, and focus totally on them.
Although you are the treating professional, the patient ultimately will heal better if they are fully enlisted in the healing process as your partner. Their disease process will improve most in a setting in which they feel confident in you and your treatment and firmly believe they are on the right healing path.
This requires you explain what you are doing and make sure they understand what they are to do. Patients come to a treatment professional to feel better. Yet many studies have indicated that the noncompliance rate averages 50 percent. Many factors contribute to this surprising statistic, such as misunderstanding or confusion about their part in the healing process, forgetting to take pills, second-guessing the practitioner by doubling up on pills to get better faster, or feeling discouraged about their illness and not trying to get better. Some patients take a perverse delight in being sick, enlisting sympathy for their plight. Curiously, such a person may not be fully conscious about what they are doing. To be effective as a healer, you must listen carefully, support empathetically, instruct clearly and inspire the patient to do their part in furthering the healing process.
There are also some other things that are important to remember, which I've learned over the many years of my own practice, sometimes the hard way. Avoid stereotyping the patient: each one is totally unique. This may seem obvious, but it is easy to think in terms of categories of patients, such as the spry old woman who seems spunky but a little confused. It is particularly easy to stereotype elderly patients or children. Each patient is different and has special needs.
Generally avoid sympathy. This seems counterintuitive, but it is so true. When I refer to sympathy, I mean saying or thinking, "I feel so sorry for you," or, "I'm so sorry you have this illness or these symptoms." Sympathy is disempowering to the person who receives it. They become the object of your pity. Good teachers learn it is not good to feel sorry for their slower students. If such children receive pity, they will begin to feel helpless and hopeless. They need constructive encouragement, problem-solving skills and empowerment. It is the same with patients. There is a time for sympathy when you are consoling someone about the death of a loved one. At such times "I'm so sorry," is highly appropriate. Otherwise, avoid it. Provide empathy. Empathy means reaching out to another person, understanding this person and grasping their situation. We all crave empathy. It is the opposite of sympathy because it is empowering, motivating those who receive it to press forward and deal with their problems. Providing empathy helps them to realize they are not alone.
Avoid overreacting or an over-display of your own emotions in a sad situation. You're the one who needs to be in control. Being empathetic does not mean reflecting back the sad or frightened emotions of your patient. They need you to be understanding, but also to be in charge. I've had to excuse myself for a few minutes in some heartbreaking situations to get better control over my own emotions. At critical times such as this, I was the person on whom the distressed patient needed to rely to help them toward the best possible outcome. I needed to be strong.
Emphasize the positive whenever possible, but be honest. Giving patients a false and inappropriately optimistic pitch about their own situation will often come back to haunt you later on. Patients need accurate information and they need the truth. We all want correct information about what is coming up for us and what we need to do to cope with it. I always believe in going toward the problem rather than trying to avoid it or go around it. This is sometimes painful but is best in the long run. At the same time, we can always hope for the best, and strive for an optimistic outlook.
You'd like to be able to help as many patients with their medical problems as you can. You want to make a difference in your profession and help upgrade the professional reputation of Oriental medicine practitioners. You know you're good. You want others to know this, too. You also want to work alongside these other people in a spirit of collaboration and mutual respect, be they colleagues, patients, or loved ones. You want to be successful, be able to pay your bills, have a nice office and avoid dependency on others. You want a satisfying professional career. With a spirit of dedication, a love of what you do and a careful attention to detail, you can and will accomplish your goals.
Click here for previous articles by Bruce H. Robinson, MD, FACS, MSOM (Hon).