Secret to Success


Lessons learned during the first year of private practice.

By Jeanette M. De Witt, PT, MPT, LAT, ATC

From July 1998 through January 2012, I practiced in a wonderful hospital system in Ohio that allowed me to gain experience, attend educational seminars, and advance my career from a staff physical therapist to a supervisor. Although I was content with my position, I always held high hopes that I would own my own clinic “one day.” After a family vacation to Wisconsin and falling in love with the state, my family decided to move, and I returned to a staff physical therapist position. However, after seven months, I found myself missing the supervisory responsibilities I had once enjoyed at the hospital. I elected to give private practice a whirl and reached out to a company that assists therapists in opening their own clinics and decided to pursue my dream. After a month of interviews, I joined the company’s network and embarked on my first year as a clinic director. This was a large leap of faith from which I have greatly benefitted. My practice was truly built from the ground up as at the time of signing, the clinic location was not even confirmed yet!

Fast forward to the present (15 months later), and I have a beautiful 3,300-square-foot private practice physical therapy clinic with a fireplace greeting patients as they enter the building. In addition to my full-time hours, I have a dedicated and experienced staff that includes a part-time physical therapist, a full-time certified athletic trainer, a full-time front desk coordinator, two part-time rehabilitation technicians, and a transportation driver who takes patients to and from their appointments when they are unable to drive. I am so fortunate to be surrounded by not only a wonderful staff, but also brilliant business and marketing-oriented minds. I have learned so much from being part of a network of experts in the physical therapy profession and private practice. By sharing some tidbits of advice passed on or observed throughout this first year, I hope to help others who are thinking about making the leap into private practice or have recently done so.

  1. “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” If you do not have the compassion to care about the people you interact with on a daily basis (co-workers, patients, physicians, vendors, etc), or the passion to pursue understanding others’ perspectives, then you will not receive the benefit from others’ experience and expertise. Nor will you develop the relationships to even start your practice up and running.
  2. “Be a sponge.” Absorb everything anyone tells you, and I mean anyone! Your billing specialist knows how to obtain maximum payment so that you do not feel like you are working like crazy for nothing. Your front desk coordinator knows how to schedule your day so that you can be efficient and productive. Your maintenance man knows how to keep your equipment safe and protect you from liabilities. Your marketing team knows how to get the best bang for your buck and spread the word about your practice—they know which methods work and which ones do not, so you can avoid wasting your time and energy doing things that will not deliver results. Trust them and soak up their knowledge and experience.
  3. “Don’t be everywhere but nowhere.” There is a tendency to want go everywhere possible to bring patients in the door. And there are so many resources— schools, employers, churches, sports teams, doctors, and the list continues. Too often, we try to reach out to everyone on this list, which is a waste of time and energy, as well as a good way to travel down the road of burnout. Instead, focus your attention on a top 10 list of potential referral sources and develop relationships with them.
  4. “It’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon.” Understanding that you are not going to open your doors on the first day with a booked schedule and referral sources knocking down your door. This is key to give you peace of mind. These rewards will come over time throughout your private practice journey.
  5. “Live in a vitality cycle, not a vicious cycle.” Develop a business plan and set goals; however, have realistic expectations for the first one to two years of practice as you focus around growth and development, as well as establishing a healthy balance between work and play. Opening a practice is an exciting time, but also a busy time. Don’t allow it to burn you out!
  6. “Don’t over-commit.” I learned the hard way! I strongly suggest that you do not begin a new career adventure, start an online DPT program, and buy a house all within 6 months of each other. I did all three, as well as be a wife and mother of two toddlers. Fortunately, I have a strong family support system, and I am surrounded by exceptional professionals.
  7. “Stay connected.” Once your clinic opens and you have your nice private office, it is easy to get stuck in there. Leave your office and listen to your practice and see the clinic through your patients’ eyes. Listen to how your staff talks with your patients and how they communicate with each other. Pay attention to the smallest things. Is the temperature in the waiting area comfortable? Is the clinic clean? Be present. It is your business to know what is going on in your business.
  8. “Love them and lead them.” I was once asked what my leadership style was and this was my response. I cannot lead my staff if I do not know them. Learning about people and loving them for who they are is vital to leading them. Showing that you care will empower your team to work at the level you expect.

Of course, no two private practices are the same. However, these simple take-home messages are vital to the success of any and every private practice. Take advantage of other’s experiences and knowledge, do not over-commit and burn yourself out, show others you care and understand that success takes time. These simple tidbits will help you thrive, just as I have done this past year.

Jeanette M. De Witt, PT, MPT, LAT, ATC, is the local operator and director of Physical Therapy & Rehab Specialists of Kenosha in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Jeanette can be reached at jeanette@ptrsonine.com.