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Is Your Acupuncture Clinic Scaring Patients Away? by Charles Christopher

Is Your Clinic Scaring Patients Away?

Do you hear that muffled gasp and the sound of footsteps fading down the hall? It's your clinic door squeaking closed on the patient you'll never see. She took one look at that framed orca whale print—you know, the one you bought at the onramp to the Tehachapi Freeway—and smelled that moldy naugahyde sofa (the one you should have dumped at the onramp to the Tehachapi Freeway), and she spun around on her patent leather Ferragamos, hightailing it right out of there. That's right; this potential patient chose Plan B, which was to drown her menstrual cramps in a Starbucks mocha latte with a Midol chaser.

Like many acupuncturists, you shrug your shoulders in response, mumbling about the impossibility of pleasing everybody. There's no accounting for taste, you say, gulping down your scorpion placenta tea. If that patient was looking for a fancy office she didn't belong here anyway. Besides, she would have been horribly demanding, a serious drain on your "giving" nature. And you're probably right. But while your criticism of this woman might be apt, it won't help you pay the rent. A selfless, "giving" nature is a nice asset, God knows, but developing a sensible "getting" nature means you can stop counting paper clips. Self-righteousness won't keep the lights burning. And if you'd find room in your heart for those "demanding" patients, you might find they become your most enthusiastic and appreciative patrons.

So let's analyze what propelled your potential patient out the door. Your hopelessly out-of-date sofa (yes they do go out of style) with its dark, stain-concealing color, seems eager for its own End of Days, when it can give up those tarry splotches to the Holy Hereafter. And the "art" on the walls? Well, it violates a basic principle: office art should be either utilitarian (meridian charts) or so pleasantly innocuous that patients rarely notice it. Framed, inane phrases such as, "When we all work together as a team, we can get where we couldn't otherwise get alone," inspire no one. Doctors and employers, astoundingly, don't seem to realize how transparent these bullying sentiments are. Studies show that these posters, with their manipulative messages written across dusky-hued pics of rowing teams, rock climbers and leaping dolphins, generate nothing but hostility. In either case, aluminum picture frames belong in the trash. Also dumpster-worthy are terrariums, dream catchers, autographed photos of Telly Savalas, knitted Afghans and anything resembling cute, pudgy, hairless kittens standing on hind legs, mouthing an eerie "Hello!" In short, if your office looks like an explosion in a tchotchke factory, it's time for a garage sale.

So, how do you know if your office needs a make-over? Simply take this little personality test:

1. Chenille is:
A: A tufted fabric evocative of wisteria-scented autumnal morning trots down leafy horse trails in The Hamptons.
B: A basketball star.


2. Birkenstocks and dangly earrings are appropriate attire for:
A: An electroshock treatment.
B: An acupuncturist.

If you answered "A" to these questions, you're doing just fine and you don't need my advice; put down this article and go decoupage something. If you answered "B," you'd better read on.

Now Nice is Nice?

There's a simple, unavoidable fact you need to face: if your waiting room isn't as upscale as the living room your patient just came from, you need to redecorate. Unless you're working in a clinic that serves the homeless, this eliminates Ikea as a decorating resource. Ikea furnishings, as your patients well know, are cheap. Since your patients will unconsciously equate you with your waiting room, you will be perceived as a cut-rate practitioner and they might resent paying what you truly deserve for your services. A dignified, waiting room creates the understanding that valuable, superior service will be rendered. Patients are also less likely to resent waiting a little longer in an esthetically pleasing environment, when their doctor is running late.

Contemporary Waiting Room Photo

So, how do you redo your reception area? You will first need to visit high-end medical offices for inspiration, purchase several interior design magazines (cut out the pics of offices you'd like to emulate) and watch a few dozen episodes of HGTV. Decide on a theme (Asian, contemporary, etc.) and a color palate, and paint one or two walls with a pale, calming accent color. At a recent "promote your practice" seminar in San Francisco, a well-known teacher advised attendees to buy "blooper" paint in an effort to economize. Don't do it! The psychological implications of settling for an environment colored by someone else's mistake should be pretty obvious. Don't be haphazard: find room in the budget for your color.

Next, you'll visit (at least) mid-range furniture warehouses (avoid laminates, excessive gilt and bamboo and faux anything, as well as glass tops on tables) and attempt to buy the floor model of whatever you find—a cash payment will sometimes clinch the deal. Used hotel furniture warehouses can offer terrific bargains, as can "scratch & dent" stores. For accessories, visit flea markets and antique stores. Don't be afraid of antique stores; remember, an antique is anything with dust on it. Floor lamps must be new, sleek (stark white shades only) and will frankly cost you a few bucks. But patients will notice. They will also notice the few antiques (try to avoid copper bed pans, rusty railroad spikes and Aunt Jemima bobbleheads) you've placed around the room and will ask where you got them. The answer to the question, "Where did you get it?" must always be the same: "Oh, it's been in the family forever." The same answer applies when patients ask why the receptionist (who happens to be your mother) bears a resemblance to you. One technique for deciding if a room does or doesn't work is to take photos and examine them. Have your friends examine them and tell you what does/doesn't work visually. The camera doesn't lie.

An alternative to the high-end scenario is to provide furnishings that are so exotic that nobody can place them. Wooden carvings and hand-dyed textiles in a saffron-tinted room will transport the patient away from all familiar references. But remember: your patients will know if you got that hand carved Quan Yin from Cost Plus and they'll turn her over to see if she was on sale (wouldn't you?). Either way you go, all allusions to political/religious beliefs must be banished from the space; this includes your literature display, which should be TCM-oriented.

Small Spaces

Asian Waiting Room photo

Small spaces produce special challenges but the basic premise is the same as the corporate workspace. "The ultimate planning objective is not an easy balance to achieve," writes Julie K. Rayfield in "The Office Interior Design Guide: An Introduction for Facility and Design Professionals". You must develop "a strategic facilities plan sufficiently specific in its approach to be effective but adequately flexible to respond to continual organizational changes."* On our small scale, that may mean buying ottomans and setting trays of literature on them instead of buying a coffee table: additional seating can then be created as needed, without adding furniture. If your landlord allows it, you may want to sink shallow, recessed cabinets into the walls to display herbal supplements. The generous use of mirrors is also an antidote for cramped spaces. No matter what size your office and what theme you decide on, you'll want to apply the basics of feng shui.

Once the potential patient has settled comfortably in your waiting room (now appropriately called the reception area), you must present yourself appropriately. This, of course, is an entirely separate subject, but there is one jarring violation that must be mentioned: tattoos.

Tattoos, despite the wearer's belief that they express a maverick sensibility, are just a desperate attempt to belong. In an acupuncture office, they also suggest a disregard for pain. If you absolutely must get a tattoo, then have it installed in a place nobody with any taste or morals will ever look. Take a lesson from an acupuncturist friend of mine who wanted a tasteful little tattoo applied on her ankle. Being a sophisticate, she chose the name of her favorite French ballet, "Les Sylphides," as her design. She then brought the musical CD to a tattoo artist, to copy the spelling. As he went to work on her ankle, she drifted off to sleep, having downed a full bottle of Anmian Pian to settle her nerves. When she awoke four hours later, she discovered he had printed "Les Sylphides, with Vladimir Ouspensky conducting the Budapest State Orchestra, Natasha Telechev guest soloist, a Deutsche-Gramophone Recording," halfway up her thigh. "My God," she told me later, "it's a good thing I woke up when I did! Who knows where the copyright notice might have landed?"

As a fully trained acupuncturist, you deserve the most appreciative patients and the best compensation possible. I'm constantly humbled by the intelligence and compassion of acupuncturists whom I meet; they are unusually original thinkers with intuitive, well-disciplined minds. At their best, they provide encouragement and relief, guiding their patients up the unending pathway to ever increasing wellness. Shouldn't that pathway be well-furnished?

Rayfield, Julie K. (1994). The Office Interior Design Guide: An Introduction for Facility and Design Professionals, Wiley Professional Pub.

Charles Christopher is an acupuncturist in the Los Angeles area.

Reprinted from © Qi Journal (Summer 2005)

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