I wish I could say my journey from acupuncture skeptic to the owner of Points of Origin, PLLC was smooth. It was not. Add into the mix a husband who is a conventionally trained MD and thinks (like his friends and colleagues) that acupuncture is "fringe medicine", and you have the ingredients for a very rocky ride.
It could have been a tragedy, but instead it became a life-changing comedy, with just a bit more drama than I would have liked.
Chapter 1: Ignorance is Bliss
Chapter 2: The Birth of A Clinic and The Transformation of a Doctor
Chapter 3: Self Employment, Here We Come!
Chapter 4: Points of Origin, PLLC
Chapter 5: Finding Office Space for Our New Acupuncture Clinic
Epilogue: Lessons Learned
I have often said to potential acupuncturists, "if you want to be a successful acupuncturist, marry a doctor." Of course it is a joke. But many people think I have had an easy road to success because of my Points of Origin, co-owner.
The truth is doctors probably get even less business training than acupuncturists, and my husband was no exception. So when he approached me during my final year of acupuncture schooling with the brilliant idea that he quit his safe, secure, good-paying job as a pediatrician, and we open our own acupuncture clinic together, I SHOULD have said something sane like,
"But neither of us has ANY business experience!"
Or, "We're used to living on a salary. How will we pay our mortgage, car loan, and over $80,000 in student loans??"
Or even, "Shouldn't we get some advice from other self-employed business owners to see if this is a feasible idea? Then write a business plan, and research the market?"
Not to mention, "Live together AND work together... are you sure THAT'S a good idea?"
Not one of those rational questions came out of my mouth.
Instead, in response to my husband's ridiculous suggestion that we open our own acupuncture clinic together, I said, "OKAY!"
That was 8 years ago.
Points of Origin, PLLC was born in the summer of 2000. We were in our 30's, adventurous, and totally naive when it came to business.
The fact that we opened an acupuncture clinic together is no small miracle. Just a few years prior, I did not even believe in acupuncture (see, my journey From Acupuncture Skeptic to Believer and Beyond ), and my husband, Peter, was embarrassed to be a doctor with a wife studying "fringe medicine".
Peter is a conventionally trained physician without a shred of "woo-woo" in his background or experience. So when I approached him in 1996 and told him I wanted to quit my job to go to acupuncture school, he was not happy.
To his credit he supported my decision. And to his extra credit, he became interested in the concepts, philosophies, and medical system I was studying.
I would come home from acupuncture school and catch him reading my textbooks. His questions to me were always the same,
"Does this stuff really work?"
And, "If it works, how come I never heard about it in medical school or through my medical journals?"
And, "Why isn't there any research showing acupuncture works?"
The assumption was that since the medical schools did not teach doctors about acupuncture, then it must not be a valid system. I do not blame him for thinking this way. All doctors are trained to think and believe certain things that are not necessarily true. (The same is true for Acupuncturists, by the way.)
I showed him the piles of research, I shared my experiences and I did what any good wife would do: I scheduled him an appointment at the acupuncture school clinic to experience acupuncture for himself. He saw one of my professors and was prescribed herbs. His transformation was remarkable.
Peter became more interested and took some classes on Traditional Chinese Medicine at a local massage college. He then discovered the UCLA Medical Acupuncture Program for physicians. It is a program dedicated to the training of doctors to practice Medical Acupuncture, a designation distinct from Traditional Chinese Medicine.
I continued my acupuncture schooling while he started doing acupuncture in his general pediatrics practice, mostly on teenagers with sports injuries. Not surprisingly, his colleagues thought he was a bit strange, but the nurses and parents were all curious and supportive.
He enjoyed great results with his patients and hoped to provide more acupuncture. Unfortunately conventional medicine is ill prepared to accommodate a system like acupuncture where doctors spend more time with patients and therefore see fewer patients per day. Time is money. And acupuncture requires time.
In his conventional pediatrics practice Peter was seeing about 30 kids per day. They were scheduled in 10-20 minute time slots. His days were long and his on-call schedule often left him sleepless and burnt out.
Today he sees roughly seven patients per day, each for about an hour. Obviously he could make more money seeing 30 patients a day. But his career change from conventional medicine to medical acupuncture and holistic medicine was not about money. In fact one of the myths out there is that doctors are becoming medical acupuncturists "to make more money".
Being able to help kids by addressing the root of the problem, without using drugs, is very satisfying. Peter is able to explain illnesses, behavioral issues, and emotional disturbances using the principles of energetic medicine. For some parents, his intervention is the first time their child's condition received validation and treatment.
Peter's decision to leave his primary care pediatrics career was not an easy one. Little did he know, there would be no going back.
Don't mistake what I am about to tell you for complaining. It's not.
I am going to try to give you a clear picture of what we were facing when we set out to open our practice. We made things far harder on ourselves that we had to, only because we didn't know any better.
Also, I want you to be aware of the challenges faced by doctors who choose to practice medical acupuncture. Again, this is not to feel sorry for them. It is so you can be informed.
The biggest issue facing us was that of Peter's malpractice insurance. Without boring you with the gory details, suffice it to say that doctors cannot easily walk away from their specialty without owing thousands and thousands of dollars in a supplemental form of malpractice insurance called, "tail coverage".
Additionally, most doctors sign a "non-compete" clause in their contract so that if they ever decide to leave, they cannot open up shop within a certain radius of their former clinic for a period of time.
All this was true for Peter, so even if he wanted to maintain a practice as a primary care pediatrician, and incorporate medical acupuncture, he could not. If he only provided medical acupuncture, and not pediatrics, then it was okay. In case you do not know, pediatricians make significantly more income than self-employed medical acupuncturists.
Initially we thought that if we needed money Peter could always "moonlight" at the hospital, but the malpractice insurance issue precluded this.
So we were forced to make a living as acupuncturists. We did not have any back-up plan or second jobs to turn to. To make matters even more challenging, we had mortgages, car loans, and school loans to pay. The implications of missing a payment were obvious and scary.
At some point you have to let go of all the scary scenarios and just take that leap of faith.
On June 19, 2000 (a month before I even graduated from acupuncture school), we "formed" Points of Origin, PLLC. I am not even sure how we came up with this name but for some strange reason at the time it was "perfect"! (See, my tips on How To Name Your Acupuncture Clinic so that you do not make the same mistake.)
What were we thinking?! Not only is "Points of Origin" hard to say, it's difficult for people on the phone to understand.
"Points of Origin" does not say a single thing about who we are or what we do. That means that every sign, business card, or phone book listing has to include additional space for explaining that we provide acupuncture, medical acupuncture, Chinese medicine, or holistic medicine.
More signage, more lines in a phone book, and more confused customers unable to figure out what you do, all means more dollars you have to spend to make things clear.
It gets worse.
In the year 2000, we had never heard of Google and were not very internet savvy. So we did not do an internet search of our name. If we had, we would have learned the following:
So, other than my husband and I being in significant debt with major monthly expenses, and choosing a practice name that was easily confused with arsonists and religious "creationists", we were ready to go!
Off we went looking for office space to rent. How hard could that be?
We started out thinking we should get about 1000 square feet, which would give us three small treatment rooms, a small bathroom and waiting area. Perfect for two brand new acupuncture practitioners, right?
Then in a moment of inspiration, we decided to GO BIG! After all, 1000 square feet would not give me much room for an herbal dispensary and it would make the waiting room and reception area awfully tight. Not to mention, we would not have any room to grow.
Instead of a cozy 1000 square feet of office space we decided to go with an office that had twenty-four hundred square feet (yes, that's 2400 square feet), 6 treatment rooms, 2 offices, a small kitchen, a huge waiting room, an herbal dispensary area, and a nice place for a receptionist. The waiting room was large enough to have an occasional educational workshop, which we were interested in having. It could easily seat 40 people with the right re-arrangement of furniture and addition of folding chairs. This seemed like a huge plus to us (and actually it was), but it came with a hefty pricetag.
We ended up with a $5000/month lease (yes, you read that right) for a period of 5-years. Perfect for two brand new acupuncture practitioners, right? Wrong!
Looking back I cannot believe we went through with everything.
All I can tell you is at the time we never thought for a moment that we would not use all those treatment rooms.
Which is very odd since the only way to use them is to double book. That is have multiple patients at one time and go from room to room. This is something Peter did as a pediatrician, but never as an acupuncturist. And it is something I never did and was not comfortable doing. And just so you know, double booking is ONLY an option if you have a FULL SCHEDULE. (A little F.Y.I., new acupuncturists with new businesses do not start out with full schedules!)
Fortunately all our poor planning looked visionary when we had our open house in September and an Angel walked through our door!
It was Kathleen Hensch-Fleming of the newly formed Pacific Midwifery Service, LLC. She and her business partner, Michelle Felix were looking for office space to rent. She loved our lavender walls and freshly feng-shui-ed clinic.
She asked if we had space to rent. It honestly had never occurred to us to rent out our treatment rooms (remember we actually thought we were going to USE them).
We said YES!
For the next 5 years Pacific Midwifery Service, LLC leased office space from Points of Origin, PLLC. It was a business partnership made in heaven. Not only are they fantastic people with an amazing patient-focused practice, but they were new business owners too and understood the perils of the self-employed.
They used about three-quarters of the office space and paid most of our lease payment each month. Additionally, they had people flowing through our doors almost instantly. If it was not for renting out our space, there is no way Points of Origin, PLLC could have survived.
So if you are thinking about office space that you can "grow into", consider renting out part of it for the first few years or until your practice is full.
You might think the moral of the story is to just go for it! and see what happens like we did. Enthusiasm is important, but you have the opportunity to learn from my mistakes and be smarter about the choices you make.
The most important lesson is to think things through and know yourself.That is, know how you practice and what you envision your practice to look like in the future. Had Peter and I thought things through more carefully, or had invested in a business coach, we never would have taken on such a large office space, with such a large lease payment, with such a long commitment! We narrowly escaped what could have been a devastating blow to our acupuncture practice and the end of our careers as acupuncturists.
Thank goodness for the midwives at Pacific Midwifery Service, LLC and all those who watched over us!
It's good to be grateful, but better to be smart. You deserve a long and successful career in the acupuncture profession. Plan as best you can so that when the inevitable surprises arise you are able to handle them without negatively impacting your acupuncture practice.