Co-Founder of OutSmart EMR
First Off, Welcome to OutSmart!
Hi everyone! I’m Venk, and I’m the Co-Founder and CEO of Outsmart EMR. Over the past several years, I’ve spoken to hundreds of health care practitioners and clinic owners, and helped them to optimize and modernize their clinics and practices. From new graduates setting up to practice for the first time, to national chains and international clinics modernizing their approach to health care, I’ve been witness to decision making in the health care industry at all levels. I’ve seen some of the most successful clinic launches ever, as well as some of the worst marketing blunders a practitioner could make.
As for myself, I’ve founded and grown multiple successful businesses over the past decade and I’ve also worked closely with various types of healthcare practitioners to help them start and grow their businesses. I have a unique perspective on the healthcare industry, both from leading a technology company that serves to optimize practices, and also from direct personal experience with starting and managing a clinic with my wife, who is a Naturopathic Doctor. She has owned a clinic since 2011, and with her I have been involved in starting a clinic, securing financing, clinic marketing, day-to-day clinic operations, developing unique methods for clinic management and developing efficient charting solutions.
Add to all this the fact that as a parent, a lot of my efforts have also been focused on how to manage a successful business while also having a balanced home life and the ability to spend time with my family, without becoming burned out.
Based on the hundreds of practitioners that I’ve been working with through the development of Outsmart EMR, I’ve noticed some pretty distinct differences between the clinics that are falling apart, and those that are operating successfully. The most successful health care practices all have certain things in common. I’ve put together this list of the top 10 characteristics of successful clinics, that I’m going to share with you here.
Criteria for Success
Before we get started, it’s important for me to clearly describe my definition of a successful clinic. I want to start off by saying that it is absolutely not based on income. The amount of money a clinic makes is linked to the characteristics I’m going to describe here, but it is not itself a criteria for a successful clinic in my opinion.
So what is a successful clinic? Here are the five things I look for when determining whether or not a clinic is successful:
- Practitioners and staff have a balanced workload and a good work-life balance.
- Admin staff are positive and friendly.
- Clinic as a whole has good patient retention and new patient flow.
- Clinic has a good business support team.
- Clinic has a good foundation of procedures and efficiencies to allow for future growth.
Now that we have established what I consider to be a successful clinic, here are the top 10 characteristics I’ve found that all successful clinics have in common, and what I’ve learned from them.
1. Good communication
Whether you are a solo practitioner with one admin staff, or a large clinic with multiple practitioners and admins, open communication between the entire team is essential. Everyone needs to be on the same wavelength with regards to clinic operation, marketing initiatives, policies and protocols, etc. The clinic owners who have the attitude that their staff are on a need to know basis usually end up with high practitioner and staff turnaround because no one feels like they belong.
Open communication also helps to alleviate pressure on the clinic owner, by helping to spread the responsibilities of running a clinic amongst a larger group of people, and by ensuring informal accountability for clinic initiatives. When you work as a team, every member of that team helps to keep the entire team motivated, and push past barriers and obstacles that would otherwise slow down a clinic owner operating alone.
The clinics where the staff can simply answer “I don’t know” to questions of the clinic’s overall goals or direction paint a picture of a clinic where there is no sense of belonging or shared vision.
2. Standardized, efficient workflow
If you look at what makes McDonalds so successful, it is in large part due to the fact that there is absolutely no ambiguity in what needs to be done, and what standards need to be upheld. Ensuring that your clinic’s procedures and protocols are carefully written in an accessible manner will ensure that you are not doing or saying the same things over and over every time you hire new staff, and that all your existing staff have a solid understanding of your expectations and how to perform their duties.
One of the best ways to standardize your clinic procedures and ensure efficiency is to use technology to automate as many tasks as possible. (This is where I would like to shamelessly plug OutSmart EMR 🙂 as this is something we do really well.) I want to mention that you can still have a successful clinic without the use of technology, however this will severely limit the scalability of your clinic, which is one the characteristics of a successful clinic that I will discuss further below.
When creating your clinic procedures, let go of what you “think” is the best way to do things. Efficiency is not an exercise in ego. Don’t keep trying to force your presumptions of what is efficient onto your team. Focus on seeing what works and what does not work, and scrap any procedures that are redundant, while altering those that take too long to accomplish. You need to be flexible enough to change and fine tune your procedures based on what works and what does not. And this comes back to the point on communication: your team is going to be invaluable to describe to you what is not working. Ask for their input, and listen to them.
3. Positive, solution oriented mentality
It’s very unfortunate when I see a clinic that outwardly seems successful, but then I talk to the staff and find that the clinic’s internal personality is overly negative. You can see this in the way they interact with patients, with each other, and with other businesses. The members of every single clinic that I consider successful (according to my criteria above) have been positive, solution oriented people. Problems happen all the time. You’ll get knocked over, you’ll be pushed down. I mean, if running a clinic or any business was easy, then everyone would be doing it. The path to success is realizing that these problems are not the end of the world, and that they happen to everyone. It’s hard to see this sometimes from the inside of a problem, and I’ve had to learn this lesson a few times myself. While you can afford to hurl expletives when an Ikea cabinet is not coming together quite right, in the end these kinds of reactions push you farther away from the solution, and more relevant to the current context, farther away from your patients and your team.
I can’t stress enough how crucial it is for the clinic owner to lead by example here. From what I have seen, a clinic’s team will mirror the emotional qualities of the clinic owner. A calm, positive, and solution oriented clinic owner will rub off on all members of the clinic. Problems will be more easily resolved, and the world will not be ending every single day.
And while I will not specifically say that successful clinic owners do this, I would suggest to those of you who have difficulty with the glass half full mentality to periodically ask Google, Siri, or Alexa to play some Bob Marley, dim the lights, and and partake in some newly legalized recreational therapy.
4. Balanced workload
It may be counter-intuitive to some, but reducing your workload and your scope of practice can often be the best solution to making your clinic more successful. For example, working four days a week instead of five can be a game changer. Some of the most successful clinics I have worked with are only open 3 days a week. The reduced load makes it easier for admin staff to keep on top of any administrative work, and it also makes it easier for the practitioners to ensure they are completing all their tasks, and have enough time to spend with family and friends.
Now I know that this point can be controversial, and it’s important for me to stress here that my idea of success includes a healthy work-life balance. I have talked to practitioners who are set up with IV or acupuncture clinics on staggered bookings where they see over 30 patients a day. Sure, they are raking in the money. But when I talk to them, they always seem on edge. Or in some cases, I very seldom get a chance to talk to them, they are so busy running from room to room. They are trying to maximize the income generation per square foot of their clinic. While I admire the drive and dedication required to achieve a clinic that sees over 30 patients a day per practitioner, I can’t say that it fits my criteria for a successful clinic. It’s a sure path to burnout. Some or even many of you may not agree with me here. That’s ok.
If you want to reduce your workload but you are concerned about an income reduction as a result, then you need to increase your fees based on your understanding of your demographic. Too many practitioners believe that their pricing is directly related to how many patients they are going to get. Instead, you should be thinking about what your time is worth, and what lifestyle you want to have. Bill appropriately for your time. You may lose some patients who are upset about the price increase, but you will definitely gain more patients that have a better appreciation for the value of your time.
5. High quality of care
The quality of care you provide your patients is a great indicator of the success of a clinic, and many of my points in this article feed into this. Running hundreds of patients through your clinic every week with a low quality of care may give you more income, but it does not make you a successful clinic in my opinion.
Do your patients feel like they are valued? Do they feel like they are getting the attention they need to get better? Do they feel excited to come to your clinic, talk to your staff, wait in your waiting room, and book their next appointment? When I talk to clinics that appear to have an excellent quality of care, I see it in my own interactions with them. My relationship with clinics is one of a service provider. In the end, I am the one who is supposed to be providing them excellent service. But in many cases with successful clinics, I end up feeling like the one who is being taken care of. The first time this happened to me I was stunned. I did not know if I just made a sale to them, or if they just convinced me to be their patient!
Successful clinics regularly communicate with existing patients, not just to ask them to book follow-ups but also to provide educational information. Patients will feel like they are a part of your community if you give them insights on what’s going on with your clinic, new initiatives you may be involved in, and some relevant tidbits about your own personal life. Engaging your patients outside of their clinic visits can contribute to the overall quality of care they feel when interacting with your clinic team.
In the clinic, having a positive attitude, being welcoming to patients, and making patients feel like they are heard are all characteristics I have seen in successful clinics. A lot of this ties into ensuring your clinic members have a balanced workload. It’s difficult to offer a great quality of care if everyone is overworked and stressed out.
6. Excellent patient retention
Successful clinics have a much higher patient retention. It is significantly more expensive to gain new clients than to keep existing ones, so your effort to acquire new patients does not end after a first visit. It just changes into an effort to keep that patient – and it’s not difficult. Many of the points already discussed contribute a lot to patient retention. A balanced workload, high quality care, patient outreach and a positive in-clinic atmosphere are all key elements in patient retention.
I’ve seen some clinics try to charge low rates to get clients to come back, and this strategy is doomed to failure. When a patient makes a decision to see a health care practitioner, pricing is not at the top of their list of priorities. They want to get better. Trying to beat out the competition by charging less is a losing proposition. You will end up having to see more clients to make the income required to run the clinic, and as a result the quality of care will suffer. Patients get what they pay for, and pricing yourself lower can actually turn some patients away.
The same goes for clinics trying to be a one-stop-shop for all services. Unless you are a very large clinic, this is not going to work for you either. You end up being a jack of all trades, and your referrals will go down.
Successful clinics are focused on a limited set of services and use these to build brand awareness. Continued, consistent advertising to both new and existing clients keeps your brand top of mind. E-mail marketing is one way to do this, but should not be overused as it will dilute the effectiveness of your message. If patients start seeing your e-mails too often, they will just start ignoring them. Instead, use display ads on Google, or facebook posts and ads to keep your brand top of mind. Doing this also portrays an atmosphere of success around your brand, and people like to be associated with success.
Another strategy used by successful clinics is setting up programs and structured follow-up care. This helps patients feel like their first visit is just the start of a program to get them healthier, and they are much more likely to continue with a program if they know that the full benefits will not be achieved unless they stick with it.
7. Strong referral network
For clinics that have multiple practitioners, the most successful ones have a well developed internal referral system. Even within clinics that narrow their focus to specific types of illnesses, the benefit of team-based patient care is a characteristic I’ve seen in many successful clinics.
The focus here is not on trying to maximize the revenue from a specific patient by referring to as many practitioners as possible. The idea is to build a patient care model that fully utilizes the specialties you have available in your clinic. For example, if you have a naturopath and an acupuncturist in your clinic, make it part of your patient care plan that the naturopath will rarely provide acupuncture services, and will instead refer those visits to the acupuncturist. This provides the patient a very clear picture of how your team is working together to help them with their health concern. It’s not about increasing income. It’s about using your team to their full potential, and making the patient feel like they are being provided excellent health care. The result will be happier patients, better patient outcomes, a more harmonious clinic… and yes, we can’t ignore the increased income – but don’t make that a goal in itself, it’s rarely achievable on purpose in my experience.
One of the ways in which you can set up a good team-based practice is to take some time to think about the entry points and exit points for your potential patients. Which practitioners are your potential patients most likely to see first, and which ones are they most likely to see towards the end of their treatments with your clinic? This will help to focus your marketing around your practitioners that bring in patients. Once your patient starts treatment, your practitioners can then refer them into a predetermined treatment path that takes advantage of all the specialties you have available at your clinic. This kind of baked-in referral system is something I have seen in many of the most successful clinics, and it works beautifully.
In addition to this, having a solid external referral network is also very important. Most successful clinic owners spend time networking and participating in their community. Offering educational sessions, sponsoring community events, or even volunteering helps to solidify your reputation and your brand. The owners or lead practitioners of many of the successful clinics I have worked with are all part of various non-profit boards, initiatives, or other types of community groups.
8. Clear brand identity
One of the things I’ve noticed with successful clinics is that they have a very clear brand identity. By ‘brand identity’, I refer to not only the services provided by the clinic, but how these services are provided, what kind of demographic their patients come from, and what kind of interaction their patients can expect. When I call these clinics, I’m greeted in a consistent, friendly manner. I can expect a certain service standard, and I can almost picture in my mind what the clinic would look like if it were a person. That’s actually a great exercise for every clinic owner to try. If you were to picture your clinic as a person, who would that person be? Are they efficient and to the point? Are they inquisitive, curious explorers? Are they friendly and humorous? Trying to envision the kind of person your clinic would be is the foundation for your marketing and brand identity.
A clear and well developed brand identity makes it significantly easier to design and deploy marketing strategies, and to identify your target audience. These clinics are also ready in advance for marketing initiatives, and can trigger marketing campaigns at the right time, and with the right messaging.
9. Careful patient selection
Another interesting characteristic I have noticed in successful clinics is that they are not afraid to turn patients away. Many new practitioners often take on every new patient because the focus is on growing income in order to meet a minimum overhead. While this is important, what’s more important to successful clinics is the clinic’s reputation. The wrong patient can damage a clinic’s reputation quickly. Is your clinic’s reputation really worth the few hundred dollars you would have missed out on? Just like lawyers who are very selective about taking only winnable cases, or actors who refuse roles in movies where they feel their reputation and brand will be harmed, sometimes it pays in more ways that one to turn away a patient and set a clear standard for what kinds of patients you are willing to accept.
Often times an intake form is viewed as a means to gain information on a patient in order to determine their health history and how to treat them. However, every single successful clinic I have worked with uses their intake form for the additional purpose of determining whether or not they even want an individual as a patient in the first place. They include questions about a patient’s dedication to treatment, family support structure, and their personal perspective on their illness to determine whether the patient is a good fit for the clinic. If not, they will refer the patient to another clinic or another practitioner that seems to be a better fit. Surround yourself with patients who are dedicated to their health and can succeed with your treatment plan. This will grow your clinic much faster, and raise your reputation much higher.
10. Business management team
Lastly, a solid and reliable business support network is one of the most common characteristics I see in successful clinics. The practitioners I speak to that run a successful practice are all primarily spending their time doing one thing: treating patients. They are not in charge of the day to day tasks related to accounting, marketing, or office administration. They have a team to help them.
Some even go the extra step of working with a business mentor, to help them gain a perspective on their own business that they cannot see from the inside. I have taken on this role for many of our clients who are starting new practices, to help them see what works and what doesn’t, and to guide them towards success. When you are living completely inside the bubble of your own practice, it is incredibly difficult to see the forest for the trees. This is not a failing, it’s just reality. The most successful practitioners recognize this reality, and seek out advice from people with a better vantage point.
With regards to the actual work of running a clinic, having the right people to take on tasks that you are not good at or don’t have time to do can make the difference between a positive, balanced life and a stressful, chaotic, and failing practice. Successful practitioners are not simply focused on trying to save money all the time by doing all the work themselves. In the end it can overwhelm you and as a result quality of care goes down.
It’s a sign of business maturity when you are not afraid to seek out advice from someone with a better vantage point, and seek out a team with the relevant skills that can help you manage your business.
So where does this all leave us? I’ve listed above what I found to be the top 10 characteristics of the most successful clinics I have worked with, and explained some of what I have learned in the process. I think it’s important to realize that no matter how accomplished you are personally or professionally, you can always learn something new and useful by being open to asking questions and discussing your vision with others. I wrote this article not because I think practitioners need to follow my advice, but because the conversation is worth having. I’ve spoken with practitioners at all stages of their practice, from those retiring after 45 years in the health care industry to students and new grads who believe that they will change the world; on one side the wisdom of experience, and on the other the energy of youth. Being in the middle of all this has given me a fantastic perspective on the health care industry, and one that I’m absolutely excited to share with you.
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