Welcome to Fullscript’s integrative medicine education series. Discover how integrative medicine improves patient outcomes and why it’s being adopted by forward-thinking practitioners across North America.
Whether you are a new graduate or thinking about changing the focus of your existing medical practice to a more integrative approach, there are some important factors to consider when starting an integrative medicine practice. Begin by embracing what it means to be integrative. The integrative medicine doctor takes the best that conventional and complementary medicine has to offer to create individualized, evidence-informed, whole-person treatment plans that focus on body, mind, and spirit. (6)
“Some practitioners want to just dabble,” says Ronald Hoffman, MD, who created the Hoffman Center in New York City in 1985. “I say jump in!”
How to practice integrative medicine
Practitioners can study integrative medicine or transition to being an integrative provider by taking continuing education courses. There are many integrative medicine programs online and through a variety of different universities throughout North America. (5)
It’s important to note that presently there are no nationally standardized integrative medicine clinic models that address business plans, financial strategies, organizational structures, and other clinical aspects. As a result, how integrative medicine practices operate can vary dramatically. (2) That said, there are certainly both practical and philosophical matters to consider when creating an integrative medicine practice. The first tenet that most successful integrative medicine doctors focus on is identifying their strengths and being honest about their weaknesses.
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1. Know thyself
“Spend some time at the outset to explore what you will really enjoy doing for several decades,” advises Dr. Hoffman. “Make sure you will like seeing the kinds of patients you will attract.”
During this process of discovering your identity, it’s important to be honest with yourself. “No one is an expert at everything, so go with your strengths and find help with the rest,” explains naturopathic oncologist Tina Kaczor, ND, FABNO, who created the Clinic of Natural Medicine in Eugene, OR in 2003 and sold the practice in 2017.
This first step will help you create a distinctive value proposition and unique brand for your integrative medicine practice that immediately tells the healthcare consumer what to expect from your clinic. (7)
During this first phase, it’s important to also determine who your principal patient population will be and if you will be a generalist or a specialist. (2) For example, will you see adults, children, or both? Do you want to focus on women’s health, men’s health, or family medicine?
Once you know yourself and your patients, it’s time to get the word out.
2. Get your message out
“Gone are the days when you could hang your shingle and the patients would come,” explains Dr. Sarah Cook, ND, who is a health copywriter and Certified StoryBrand Guide. “I believe the right words can take your business from ignored to adored. That starts with crafting words for your website that speak to the niche you serve and continues with an email and content marketing plan to nurture those people.”
Remember, your website, content marketing, and social media efforts are an extension of your brand and need to convey the appropriate look, feel, and messaging. Invest in your brand right from the start to ensure long-lasting success.
Another aspect to consider is experiential marketing which involves community outreach, public speaking, local media columns (e.g., newspaper, radio, television), and live demonstrations, as well as leveraging social media and content marketing. (7) Patients are hungry for health information and interested in ways to enhance their health literacy. (4)
“Educating your patients and potential patients about your approach is one of the most valuable things you can do to help ensure the success of your clinic and the health of your patients,” explains Dr. Holly Lucille, ND, RN, who started Healing from Within Healthcare in Los Angeles, CA in 2001. Dr. Lucille also says there is incredible power in word of mouth. “I started out doing some networking and that really didn’t pan out from a marketing perspective, so instead, I just focused on treating people well and giving good care and my practice exploded.”
This may require you to be selective about the kinds of patients you want to see. “There is no sense in creating frustration for you or disappointment for patients you can’t help, so I created lots of pre-screening via well-trained front desk staff,” explained Dr. Hoffman. “I wanted to avoid patients with unrealistic expectations or those who are unwilling to follow the diet and lifestyle measures I recommend. You may forego some income in the short-term, but you’ll be much happier long-term and avoid unnecessary aggravation.”
“Early on I felt like many of my patients were looking for that silver bullet,” said Dr. Lucille. “I am looking for the patient who is willing to lean in and partner with me to make the dietary and/or lifestyle changes associated with true integrative care.”
3. Focus on the details
Once you have a clear vision of your strengths and the patients you want to focus on, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and dig into the details like creating a solid business plan, staffing strategy, and financial goals. (1) Regarding finances, capital costs for an integrative medical clinic can be low with the highest operational cost being staffing. (1)
Creating strong systems from the beginning is critical. Because hindsight is 20/20, Dr. Lucille says she wished she had paid closer attention to office policies early on. “I didn’t get around to that until later, but once I had them in place, I could control things like staff attendance, emails, no shows, etc.”
“In the beginning when you have the time, create the systems that you will grow into,” says Dr. Kaczor. “Efficient systems are necessary for successful growth over time.”
It may also be important to get some legal advice regarding consent forms, liability issues, insurance coverage, and regulatory issues. Healthcare attorney Michael H. Cohen, JD, offers up these five legal tips for setting up an integrative medicine practice:
- Address standard of care issues. Documenting therapeutic reasons behind treatment plans will help establish credibility.
- Use a professional corporation. This will protect against personal liability and has other advantages as well.
- Identify insurance needs. Liability, cyber, and other forms of insurance will be necessary.
- Understand privacy and security obligations. Fully understand HIPAA rules and regulations.
- Distinguish medical/clinical practice from health coaching. There is a big difference between the two, so labeling your services correctly will be important. (3)
The bottom line
“Creating an integrative oncology clinic was incredibly rewarding,” concluded Dr. Kaczor. “For the first two years, we kept our costs down and our efforts high, which paid off because we became successful very quickly.”
Starting an integrative health practice requires a clear vision and an intimate understanding of the people you serve. From there, it’s all about providing exceptional care and educating your community about your clinic to help grow your business.
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- Coleman, R. A., & Ritch, J. M. (2008). The Business of Integrative Medicine. ACSM’S Health &Amp; Fitness Journal, 12(6), 29–32.
- Eisenberg, D. M., Kaptchuk, T. J., Post, D. E., Hrbek, A. L., O’Connor, B. B., Osypiuk, K., Wayne, P. M., Buring, J. E., & Levy, D. B. (2016). Establishing an Integrative Medicine Program Within an Academic Health Center. Academic Medicine, 91(9), 1223–1230.
- Integrative Practitioner Staff. (2017, May 5). Five legal tips for setting up a functional medicine practice. Integrative Practitioner. https://www.integrativepractitioner.com/practice-management/news/five-legal-tips-setting-functional-medicine-practice
- Liu, C., Wang, D., Liu, C., Jiang, J., Wang, X., Chen, H., Ju, X., & Zhang, X. (2020). What is the meaning of health literacy? A systematic review and qualitative synthesis. Family Medicine and Community Health, 8(2), e000351.
- Marcus, D. M. (2020). Alternative therapies in academic medical centers compromise evidence-based patient care. Journal of Clinical Investigation, 130(4), 1549–1551.
- Millstine, D. (2022, October 20). Overview of Integrative, Complementary, and Alternative Medicine. MSD Manual Professional Edition. https://www.msdmanuals.com/professional/special-subjects/integrative,-complementary,-and-alternative-medicine/overview-of-integrative,-complementary,-and-alternative-medicine
- Sabin, G. (2014, March 22). Six Easy Steps to Creating a Successful Integrative Medicine Practice. Natural Medicine Journal. https://www.naturalmedicinejournal.com/journal/six-easy-steps-creating-successful-integrative-medicine-practice