There are so many concepts that you learn in acupuncture school about running your own practice. Your professors seriously do their best to prepare you. They give you every stitch of wisdom that they can think to impart.
But there are some things that you only realize or learn to deal with once you’re in practice. Let me share with you what I learned from my experience of starting an acupuncture practice four years ago.
Some of these tips your acupuncture teachers have already taught you, and I’m here to reinforce them. They’re telling you for a good reason. Pay attention while you have the chance!
Other items on the list are things I stumbled across along the way. I personally like to feel as prepared as possible for what lies ahead. So whether you’re still in school or you graduated recently, I hope this list makes you feel more prepared for whatever comes your way in practice!
Here are the top 16 things that I wish I had known, or had paid more attention to, before starting my practice.
16 Tips I Wish I Had Known Before Starting My Acupuncture Practice:
Click to jump down to each tip:
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. AKA, find a mentor.
- It takes time.
- Make time for yourself.
- You must continue to exercise.
- Decide what makes you different / Pick a specialty.
- Start collecting emails immediately and be prepared to write a monthly newsletter.
- Attend all the free meetings and talk to (non-creepy) strangers.
- Don’t be afraid to get paid.
- Don’t be afraid to tell patients what to do.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for referrals from patients.
- Don’t be intimidated by other practitioners in your area.
- Don’t be afraid to refer patients to other practitioners.
- Don’t be afraid to fire patients.
- Don’t let people leave your office without rescheduling.
- If you’re going to take insurance, apply early.
- Accept tips graciously.
1. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
If you take nothing else away from this post, let it be this: Don’t be afraid to ask for help. With marketing. With insurance billing. With learning to feel comfortable promoting yourself. With diagnoses. With presentation skills. With ANYTHING.
There is always someone out there who has the skills and expertise to help teach you what you lack. And there’s no shame is admitting that you’re lacking, and asking those people for their expertise. The worst thing to do is to sit in your office, alone, and wonder why you’re alone.
Reach out. Don’t be afraid to ask someone formally to be your mentor. That’s a huge compliment for that person! Talk to acupuncturists who have been there before you. Talk to marketers (you can easily find some on LinkedIn). Ask for their best advice. Most people are willing to share, and for free.
2. It takes time.
Technically, you know this is true. Your professors have said it over and over again. Building a full practice takes time. But it’s easy to think that maybe you’re doing something wrong. It’s easy to get down on yourself about your patient numbers, or to be impatient to feel like you’ve “made it.”
First of all, as long as your patient numbers keep going up as the months go by (even if it’s slowly), you’re on the right track. Secondly, remember that you’re helping people, and that income (although necessary so you can eat and pay off student loans) is not the only measure of success or progress. Remind yourself of the other ways in which you and your practice have grown and matured. I’m sure there are many.
The last bit of advice I would give is this: Don’t worry about how your classmates say they’re doing. Everyone inflates their patient numbers. Everybody rounds up, or only tells you about their best week. And it doesn’t matter how they’re doing anyway. Compete with your personal best, and don’t worry about other people.
3. Make time for you.
This is a cardinal sin that I ignored when I started my practice. I thought about my business all the time, even when I wasn’t at work. I took no time for myself. How could I bring in new patients? Were there any free health fairs around town that I could get into? Don’t forget to update social media… and call that person… and write that herbal prescription!
All of these were necessary activities. But thinking about them 24/7 was not healthy. I stopped pursuing my favorite past times, like reading, going to the gym, and visiting friends. My brain was constantly churning away about my practice, long after work was over at night, and well before it began the next morning.
It’s one thing to love what you do. It’s another to drown yourself in it. This is incredibly easy to do when you run your own business. You may feel like your mental wheels are always spinning because you can’t afford to fail. When you own your own business, it can seem like so much more is at stake.
But it’s not healthy to do only work. You need personal time away from your office’s concerns. Set a strict schedule for yourself for when you’re not in the office, so you don’t end up working literally all day.
For example, business tasks are only to be done between the hours of 9:00 am and 6:30 pm. No calls will be taken after 6:30 pm. No emails answered. No herbs prescribed. Do all of this while you’re at work. Having restrictions like this will force you to be more efficient at work. If you know you can’t just “Do it later,” you’ll find time to do it at work.
Once you’ve done this, schedule in specific “you” time. Add it to your calendar and treat it as if you are a patient going to someone else’s clinic. Don’t you dare be a no-show to your own me-time! You MUST pursue the things that are important to you. If yoga makes you feel physically and emotionally refreshed, make sure you create a specific space for it in every day.
Maybe you love to journal, or jog, or sing. But you feel like you simply don’t have time in your life for these things, because you have to be thinking about your business and how to push it forward. NO. YOU, READING THIS NOW – MAKE THE TIME. This is not a suggestion. Schedule it in now, or regret it three years from now when you’re tired, run-down, and feeling soul-less. Voice of experience.
4. You must continue to exercise.
I know this is sort of included in number three, above, but I think it’s critical enough that it deserves it’s own section.
As I mentioned above, I pretty much stopped exercising once I started my practice. After graduation, I couldn’t use my acupuncture school’s gym for free anymore. I felt like all my money had to be diverted towards my business and I didn’t want to allocate any money to pay for a real gym membership. And I felt too “busy” trying to advance my business to schedule in time to travel to the gym.
This was a big mistake. Exercising is not only critical for your physical health, but for your mental health as well. There are plenty of studies documenting that regular exercise reduces stress hormones significantly and improves mental function.
Additionally, as acupuncturists, it’s important to practice what we preach. We’re teaching people to live better and to pursue healthy lifestyles. We need to do the same, or our words are dust. Who should take your advice seriously, if you don’t take your advice seriously?
5. Decide what makes you different / Pick a specialty
One of the most important concepts in marketing is letting people know why they should come to you, instead of the guy down the road. In other words, what makes you different? What makes you stand out? You don’t want to blend in with all the other acupuncturists in your area.
For many acupuncturists, this is accomplished through choosing a specialty, like sports medicine, infertility, etc. When I was in private practice, my specialty was cosmetic acupuncture. It really made me stand out because there were so few acupuncturists specializing in this at the time. Somehow it even landed me the cover a local magazine! (I’m too embarrassed to show it to you guys right now. Maybe in the future…)
But the point is that a specialty can make people sit up and take notice of what you do. It also makes people more confident that you can help them, if their condition falls within your specialty.
And of course, there are other ways of standing out to your prospective patients and current patients, such as creating an experience that really impresses them and having outstanding customer service, as we’ve talked about at length in the past.
6. Start collecting emails immediately and be prepared to write a monthly newsletter.
If you follow this blog regularly you know that I’m a huge proponent of a regular newsletter for increasing patient numbers. Forgive me for nagging you about it yet again, but it’s just that important. Check out the articles below for more detailed information. The take home message is that acupuncture newsletters are important because they:
A. Remind your current patients that you exist and how wonderful you and acupuncture are. Your email in their inbox makes them say, “Oh yeah, I’ve been meaning to make another appointment.”
B. Educate patients on all the different things acupuncture can treat, so they realize that you may be able to help their friends/family who have other conditions. This will help with referrals.
C. Convert potential patients by discussing what acupuncture can treat and that it is safe and not scary. Addressing these concerns regularly in your newsletter is a great way to help potential patients realize that acupuncture may really be a great option for them.
Further reading about newsletters:
- Why You Need an Acupuncture Newsletter
- Email Newsletter Comparison: The Top Four Platforms and How to Choose
- How To Set Up a Free Email Newsletter Account and Send Your First Newsletter!
- 13 Essential Newsletter Tips for Making Your Acupuncture Email Newsletters Shareworthy
- 103 Acupuncture Newsletter Article Topics
7. Attend all the free meetings and talk to (non-creepy) strangers.
What do I mean by this? Networking. Don’t run away! I know you don’t want to network. I didn’t either. But it gets better with time. Really. Networking is one of those things that simply must be done. People need to know you exist! You have to talk to people!
As a student, I knew networking would be important, but I didn’t understand how important until I was actually out in practice.
I’m an introvert. Regularly attending networking and other community events was hard at first. I really thought that I could build my practice without networking, without going out into my community and letting them get to know me. I thought I could hide behind internet advertising and social media. I wanted to stay in and wear my pajamas and talk to my cats. But once I got out in my community, I began to realize it wasn’t so bad. All the people at the networking meetings were nice, not scary. They just wanted the same thing I did – the opportunity to talk about their businesses.
(If you’re an introvert, take a deep breath. You’ll be okay. And I’ll be posting an article on networking for introverts very soon.)
8. Don’t be afraid to get paid
I’ve talked to some acupuncturists who say that they just want to help people, and feel that asking for payment at the end of a treatment is uncomfortable.
Maybe you feel like you should give everyone a discount. Maybe you have a hard time charging for extras and end up giving things away, like a liniment here and there. Or you don’t up-charge for your herbs at all. You just charge what the herbs cost you, so you end up making no money, even though it took you two hours to write the darn prescription.
There’s two ways to deal with this: one, suck it up, because you have to collect payment in order to live, or two, get a receptionist who will deal with the money for you.
If you’re one of those people who finds dealing with the money end difficult or awkward, and you can’t afford a receptionist, remember these two important facts:
A. You deserve to be paid a serious (non-discounted) fee. You went to school for a long time. (Four to four and a half years is a ridiculously long time for a master’s degree!) You are well-trained. You’re an expert. They are paying for your expertise as well as your time.
B. You can’t help anyone if your business goes under. You charge a fee, so you can make a living, so you can keep doing what you love. You can’t help anyone if you lose your business.
9. Don’t be afraid to tell patients what to do
I’m not the kind of person who’s great at telling other adults to do something, “or else.” Often I would give my patients advice to follow at home, but if they didn’t do it, I wasn’t good at pushing them to follow through. Most patients need reminding (nagging). They need you to keep on them about whether they’re taking their herbs, doing their exercises, or following your dietary advice.
Rare is the patient who is going to do what you say after you only tell them once, and do it regularly. We’re all human. We need reminders. Your job as the healthcare provider is to be the nag. In a nice way, of course.
I had a hard time with this at first, but I learned that it’s okay to be firm with your patients and not afraid to tell them exactly what to do to help themselves.
Remind your patients – you need their help to get them well. It’s their body. They contribute to it’s state of wellness. Sometimes you need them to help you, help them.
10. Don’t be afraid to ask for referrals from patients
As an introvert, I initially found it hard to ask patients for referrals. But asking patients for referrals is one of the best ways to get new patients. It’s a great marketing tactic that’s free!
If you have a patient who’s enthusiastic about how much better they’re feeling, then literally, all you have to do it ask. When they’re gushing about how much their pain has been reduced, agree that it’s wonderful and ask them to send in their friends and family when they need it. Tell them how much you’d appreciate meeting and taking care of their family.
11. Don’t be intimidated by other practitioners in your area
I’ve touched on this concept before. At first I was worried about stepping on the toes of the established practitioners in my area. I thought they might be annoyed if I had the same specialties, or if I advertised in areas of town or in newspapers that might be considered their “territory.”
I could not have been more wrong about this. After about a year, a group of acupuncturists in my city got together and invited all the other acupuncturists – every last one of us – come and form RocAcupuncture with them. It was a place where we could talk about our practices, our struggles, and our successes.
I learned that there was never any reason to be intimidated or worried that they would feel territorial. They wanted us all to succeed, so that acupuncture itself would succeed in our area.
Make an effort to meet the acupuncturists in your area. Create a support group of sorts. You can talk about practice management, diagnoses, difficult patient cases, everything. But don’t let yourself become isolated.
12. Don’t be afraid to refer patients to other practitioners
At first I wanted all the patients! Anyone who came into my office, no matter their complaint. I just couldn’t send away someone who wanted to give me their money. It felt bad for business!
As time went on, however, I realized that there were certain conditions that I just didn’t enjoy treating, or felt like I didn’t have the expertise to address. For example, infertility.
Eventually I began to refer infertility patients to an acupuncturist who specialized in infertility, instead of taking them on myself.
I felt so relieved that I wouldn’t have to see these particular cases. I didn’t think of it as losing money. If I didn’t feel confident in treating someone, the patient was likely to know it. Lack of confidence in a healthcare provider does not exactly encourage referrals. So I thought of it like this: I would only treat the conditions I felt confident about, in order to keep my reputation spotless. Now that is good for business.
13. Don’t be afraid to fire patients
If you have patients that make you uncomfortable, that you don’t get along with, or who simply won’t follow your advice, you are allowed to fire them.
It happens. Sometimes …
A. You just feel awkward around someone, and you can tell they do too.
B. Maybe you feel like a patient isn’t being 100% appropriate… Are they hitting on you? But… it’s hard to tell. You don’t want to jump to conclusions. (Or they definitely are hitting on you, and you have to do something about it.)
C. Maybe someone simply isn’t getting the progress you’d like them to because they won’t take your advice about diet and exercise, and it’s making you crazy.
In any of these cases, you can let a patient go. I recommend telling them something along the following lines, gently:
“I think it might be time to consider seeing another acupuncturist. I just feel like we aren’t getting the progress I’d like to see, and I think someone else will be able to help you more. Here are a list of acupuncturists with specialties in your condition.”
Even if this isn’t true (that you think they’d progress better with someone else), you can use it on anyone who makes you uncomfortable. It’s perfectly acceptable.
14. Don’t let people leave your office without scheduling their next appointment.
I never knew how much harder it is to get people to schedule once they’re gone, compared to when they are standing in front of me! Patients say they’ll call or use your online schedule, but half of them don’t. They get busy, they forget, and by the time they call you, they can’t come in for two weeks instead of one. Try your darndest to get them to make another appointment before they leave your office, or even several!
15. If you plan to accept insurance, apply as soon as possible to be an insurance provider.
I didn’t apply to to be an insurance provider until well after I’d graduated from acupuncture school, and the process of being accepted as a provider took 3-6 months, depending on the insurance company. This was such a long time, especially when I had potential patients who didn’t want to start acupuncture until I could accept their insurance.
If you’re going to take insurance, I would say apply as soon as you possibly can after you get your license, even if you’re still in school. That way by the time you graduate, you’ll be that much closer to being an insurance provider. The wait will be that much shorter.
As for insurance itself – I feel like insurance is not so scary. I know some people don’t want to deal with it because they’re worried about difficult paperwork or being controlled by the insurance companies. I accepted two major HMOs and felt like they were actually pretty easy to work with. They were clear about what diagnoses I could bill them for, they paid me promptly, they answered my questions, etc.
Accepting health insurance made it that more people were willing to try acupuncture, because they didn’t have to pay full price. Potential patients would commonly tell me that they were worried that acupuncture wouldn’t work for them, and they didn’t want to pay a lot of money (for a series of treatments) if they weren’t sure it would work. However, once I started taking insurance, the copay was about half the cost of the treatment. People admitted that they were now more willing to try it, because their risk of financial loss was reduced.
I’m not saying accepting insurance is right for everyone. Just that it’s something to consider. And if you do decide to accept it, start the paperwork ASAP.
16. Accept tips graciously, or don’t accept them at all.
People ARE occasionally going to tip you. There’s some confusion about where acupuncturists fit in – are we more “spa” or more “medicine?” So sometimes patients tip just to be safe.
The first time I was handed a tip, I tried to give it back, several times. Let me just say, this is awkward for everyone involved. I personally think accepting tips as an acupuncturist is okay. Other acupuncturists may not be comfortable with it. That’s your personal preference.
But I recommend that you make up your mind on how you feel about it, and stick to it. Don’t be wishy-washy. Either take the tip graciously and say “Thank you,” or gently say, “Oh! Thank you so much, but I don’t accept tips,” and hand it right back.
Some good advice I once received about tips or gifts: As long as you don’t feel like there’s anything implied (like that perhaps you owe this person “something else” now), then tips are generally okay.
Whew, you made it! I know this is a lot of information, but there you have it. Everything I wish I had known, or given more serious thought to, before starting up my private practice.
Do you have other tips you would add? As a new acupuncturist or acupuncture student, what other questions do you have about starting your business?
Cover image via Pink Pot