During my last year of acupuncture school, my fellow students and I spent a lot of time being confused about not only what we would do once we graduated, but also how we would do it. This was about fifteen years ago, when my choice on graduating was pretty much to open my own clinic or…open my own clinic. There weren’t many of the hospital and clinic jobs that exist today, and very few existing acupuncturists had grown enough yet to hire a second practitioner.
So we fledgling acupuncturists-to-be spent a lot of time picking the brains of our instructors, many of whom also had their own practice. Most were very free with their insights and advice. Among all the chatter, there was one comment that an instructor made that has stuck with me to this day. She said that in order to have a self-sustaining practice, I would need to have about 500 patients.
Wait…what? I was shocked. How could I possibly take care of 500 patients? Even if I could, where would I get all those people to my door? At the time her comment seemed impossible and unrealistic. However, today I completely understand what she was talking about—it’s something that I call reaching critical mass.
Her idea was that with a foundation of a certain number of patients, my practice could sustain itself. Essentially, I wouldn’t have to work so hard to market myself and my clinic. I can write about critical mass at this point, because I feel like in the past year or two my practice has turned a corner—I no longer have to think about how to keep my schedule full.
I have found that a large percentage of my patients get better, go away, and come back months or years later. They may see me for a series of appointments, during which time their health concern has been handled, and they’re done with treatment. I used to think I would never see those patients again, but time has proven me wrong. Many cycle back into my practice every 18 months to two years. Some new health thing else crops up, they remember how much acupuncture helped them in the past, and they give me a call. The upshot is that after several years, I have a steady stream of returning patients.
My biggest source of new patients, however, is through referrals, and yours should be, too. A lot has been written about how to ask your patients for referrals—something I never do. My feeling is that if they like what I do and know someone that I can help, they will refer. Often a patient will ask me about treating a condition that someone they know is struggling with, and of course, I will hand them my card. I also have my card in three or four places in my clinic—my patients get the idea. However, I have found that frequently, those patients who have cycled back into my practice are as prolific with referrals as any new patient I have ever seen.
I continue to market my clinic and services—just not as aggressively as I did as a new practitioner. I regularly update posts on my clinic site and blog. I work with an SEO expert who magically makes my posts appear everywhere. I send out a newsletter to my existing patients every month or two to remind them that I still exist. It feels good not to have to do the health fairs, talks, and networking events that took up much of my time in the early years of my practice.
Not quite at critical mass yet? Here are a few tips:
-Don’t be afraid to release patients when their treatment is done. Be confident that if you did a good job, they will likely be back.
–Make it easy for patients to return. Some might hesitate because they haven’t been in to see you for a while. When they call, be genuinely happy to hear from them and ready to help them again.
-Find a way that you can comfortably let your patients know you welcome referrals. For me, it’s having my card in several places in the clinic. You can also have a small sign in your clinic thanking patients in advance for their referrals or include an informal note in your newsletter.
-Always acknowledge a referral. My best advice is to send hand-written thank you notes.
-While the intensity of your marketing efforts may decrease, that doesn’t mean you can stop altogether. Find a few ways to continually be visible. That can be through your website, blog, newsletter, or quarterly presentations.
The bottom line is that practices mature. Many new practitioners feel like they have to continually spend a lot of their time marketing, which they do. However, after years of building, something shifts. Practices mature to a place where you can step out of the way a little bit and let the momentum take care of itself. For me, this shift has been life-changing. I am able to relax and let my practice take over. It allows me to slow down and simply enjoy working with all the incredible people that find their way to my door.