Dream Big, Start Smart: 9 Tips for Starting an Integrative Healthcare Clinic
To open an integrative healthcare clinic successfully, you need more than a bold vision and a solid business plan. You have to understand why different practitioners collaborate in this model, and why it’s becoming more and more appealing to patients.
Before we delve into those topics, we’ll explain exactly what we mean by an “integrative” healthcare clinic with the help of Jessica Frier, DAOM, L.Ac., Dean of Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine, and Assistant Professor at Northwestern Health Sciences University (NWHSU).
It’s about more than just a shared workspace
An integrative healthcare clinic brings together practitioners in areas like chiropractic, acupuncture, and massage therapy. But to be a truly integrative clinic, these practitioners do more than just share a work space.
“Think of an integrative clinic as a healing hub for people,” says Frier. “It’s a place where practitioners from different disciplines work together to treat a patient.”
That also means a clinic’s various practitioners are well-informed enough to direct patients to care outside of their scope when they think it’s appropriate. “Ultimately,” says Frier, “integrative healthcare is really about best serving the needs of each patient.”
For those thinking about opening an integrative healthcare clinic, she offers nine tips to get owner-operators started on the right foot:
- Understand the need for integrative clinics
- Choose the right school and tap into its resources
- Dream big to help you through early challenges
- Focus on patients, not on being perfect
- Build a team truly devoted to integrative care
- Have a shared vision
- Recognize the business advantages
- Be ready for the administrative challenges
- Don’t be afraid to specialize
1. Understand the need that integrative clinics fulfill today
“Even just ten years ago, you would have had a hard time finding a place that offered chiropractic care, acupuncture, and massage therapy in one place—let alone a place where the practitioners were consciously providing integrative care,” says Frier.
But today, clinics like these are becoming more common. Frier says potential owner-operators should understand why: “People that go to integrative healthcare clinics aren’t necessarily against more mainstream healthcare. But they do want more options for their health and wellness.”
Take pain management for example. Patients are moving away from the idea that one healthcare practitioner has all the answers. “They also want alternatives to drugs and surgery, and like the idea of a team-based approach to their healthcare,” says Frier. “An integrative healthcare clinic puts that team together for them.”
2. Choose the right school and tap into its resources
If you’re thinking about becoming a chiropractor, acupuncturist, or massage therapist, Frier says to look for programs that can help prepare you for an integrative healthcare setting.
For example, attending a school that offers multiple healthcare programs gives you a unique environment to experience what other disciplines bring to the healthcare equation. This can begin to get you ready to practice an integrative healthcare approach, says Frier.
Also, look for a school that exposes you to a variety of healthcare professionals. NWHSU, for instance, has formed partnerships with numerous other organizations. This allows students to work alongside professionals in areas like oncology, rehabilitation, emergency, and sports medicine—valuable experiences, especially for those interested in integrative healthcare.
3. Dream big to help you through early challenges
If you’re contemplating having your own integrative clinic some day, Frier says it’s never too early to start envisioning: “I tell my students to dream big and vividly imagine what their ideal integrative clinic would be like.”
This is especially important for when things get tough in the early stages of your business.
“You may have to start out in a small space,” says Frier. “And it may take longer than you think to build up a patient base. But your bold vision is what will keep you motivated.”
4. Focus on patients, not on being perfect
The numerous decisions that go into opening an integrative clinic can seem overwhelming.
“People can become obsessed with making the ‘wrong’ choices,” says Frier. “But if you think there’s a perfect formula you need to figure out before you start, you’ll never make the leap.”
Frier says you can help create a less stressful process and make smarter decisions if you keep your focus on the patients you plan to serve in your community.
“Try to view your decisions through their eyes. Think about what they need and how you can best fulfill that need—and not so much on what the ‘best’ move is for you.”
5. Build a team truly devoted to integrative care
“Just because you’re under one roof with other practitioners doesn’t make it integrative care. But oftentimes people will confuse the two,” says Frier.
If you want a practice that’s truly integrative, Frier says you need to work with colleagues who believe in integrative care and are interested in actually practicing it.
“You can’t begin to know those things until you have serious conversations, possibly challenging and uncomfortable ones, that help uncover the heart of your vision,” says Frier.
6. Have a shared vision
“Let’s say for example you’re imagining a clinic focused on women’s health and fertility,” says Frier. “But your potential partner—who’s maybe even a friend—is thinking about a high-volume clinic that works with athletes and focuses on things like sports injuries.”
Rather than bend to another’s vision, you’re better off to keep searching for like-minded colleagues, suggests Frier.
“The environments would be so different in my example. One would be more calm and serene, the other would have a high-energy vibe. The point is you want a clinic where all the practitioners feel at home—not where they’re trying to fit themselves into a place that’s not really them.”
7. Recognize the business advantages
According to Frier, practitioners interested in opening an integrative clinic often worry too much about about “internal competition.”
“They think that working with several other people under the same roof means someone else will steal your patients and that it’ll be a constant fight for every dollar.”
In reality, the opposite can be the case, says Frier.
In addition to the growing consumer demand for integrative style clinics, there are other reasons why they can potentially perform better than single-modality clinics:
- The attraction of convenience. People like the ease of a single place to go for multiple healthcare services.
- Deeper patient buy-in. People who become two or three services deep into your clinic are more likely to remain loyal to your business over the long term.
- More patient referrals. Highly loyal patients, especially those who receive multiple services at your clinic, are also great referral sources.
- Built-in colleague referrals. Rather than “steal” patients, your clinic colleagues can actually be a continual source of referrals.
8. Be ready for the administrative challenges
Opening and operating an integrative clinic is much more complicated than a one-person practice.
“That may seem obvious,” says Frier, “but I’ve seen a lot of practitioners surprised by all the administrative responsibilities that go into operating an integrative practice, especially those who’ve had their own single-modality clinic.”
You don’t have to be intimidated by that fact. But Frier says you definitely want to go in with eyes wide open when it comes to figuring out things like the following (which is by no means an exhaustive list):
Space. How much space will you need for multiple practitioners? How many will you start with? And don’t forget that more space means more cost. Who’s going to sign the lease? Where will the money come from to pay the rent?
Equipment. What tools, technology, and equipment do each of your practitioners need to start out? How will you finance all of it?
Marketing. Your marketing needs to be multi-layered. You’ll need to market each of your individual services and market the overall integrative aspect of your clinic.
Scheduling. Will you rely solely on answering the phone when possible and returning voice messages? Will you set up an online scheduling option? Do you plan to hire a receptionist? If so, how will you cover that cost when starting out?
Business ownership and organization. You need to figure out what kind of business entity you’re establishing. Will you be the sole proprietor and hire employees? Do you want to form a legal partnership with your fellow practitioners?
Billing and accounting. How will you set your fees for the different services you provide? How will you and your colleagues get paid? And how much will you get paid?
Insurance for you and your business. What’s best for your integrative clinic when it comes to general business insurance as well as malpractice insurance?
Health insurance from patients. Accepting health insurance means more paperwork but also the potential for more revenue streams. Most chiropractors accept insurance. Many acupuncturists don’t. What will your overall policy be for insurance?
9. Don’t be afraid to specialize
Although you certainly can opt for establishing a general practice integrative clinic, Frier suggests seriously considering a specialized clinic that caters to a specific patient population. Examples include:
- Sports injuries and recovery
- Women’s health and fertility
- Complementary cancer care treatment
- Neurological conditions (e.g., stroke rehab, Parkinson’s disease, concussion support)
- Chronic pain conditions
- Autoimmune disorders
- Digestive health
Frier says she’s seen people who really want to specialize become hesitant about actually doing it. “By focusing on a smaller group of potential patients—so their reasoning goes—they think they’ll be hurting their chances for success,” she says.
“But not only is that a fear-based way of looking at things,” explains Frier. “It’s not necessarily accurate from a business perspective.”
It may take longer to build up a patient base at a specialty clinic, says Frier. But she also says specializing has advantages that can actually help foster long-term success:
- You can more easily zero in on finding the right colleagues. With a specialty clinic, you’ll have a much clearer sense of who you’re looking for when it comes to finding partners and/or employees.
- You can help limit your competition. As you effectively target a specific group of people, you’re also differentiating yourself. When there aren’t many clinics like yours, you can more easily stand out.
- You can develop a bold, focused brand. Since you’re not trying to appeal to everyone, it can be easier to create a strong brand with a specific message.
- You can pinpoint your marketing efforts. By specializing, you’re able to more easily identify where it makes sense to, for example, place ads, do radio spots, set up displays, give outreach presentations, and leave behind marketing materials.
What’s your next move?
Integrative healthcare clinics are meeting a growing demand for patient-centered care that’s team-based and personalized. Could opening such a clinic be right for you?
If you’d like you to learn about Northwestern Health Sciences University alumni who have established successful integrative healthcare clinics of their own, check out this article: Twin Cities Clinics Join New Wave of Wellness.
For more information on preparing for a career in integrative healthcare, see Get Ready for the Healthcare Career Game-Changer: Integrative Healthcare.
Thinking about a career move? If so, you’ll want to read this: Be Part of the Healthcare Solution: Switch to a Career in Integrative Healthcare.
Northwestern Health Sciences University is a leader in integrative healthcare education.
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