Why I Say No To Referrals

The other day I tried to refer someone to my colleague Susan Giurleo and she said no.  In the process I got to learn more about what she focuses on, and I was reminded that I never wrote this post.  So here goes..

I say no to a lot of referrals.  It’s easier to do that with a full practice, but I used to do this even when I was starting out.  Here’s why:

1. In life and work I try to face my fear. 

Like most people, I have had adversity in my life, and one thing I have learned is that I am my best self when I am not thinking or acting out of fear.  When I first started my practice I just wanted referrals.  Heck, I just wanted the phone to ring.  And I noticed that.  I realized that I was about to recreate a fear-based work environment similar to one I’d just left.  And hadn’t I turned down some interviews and a job offer because I wanted to go into business?  I needed to calm down and not get desperate.  Nobody wants a desperate therapist.

I also knew that if I became focused solely on filling up my office hours I’d have a harder time setting limits on what I did in therapy.  In fact that would in my opinion contaminate the treatment relationship, because I’d be worrying that patients would leave rather than paying attention to them, and avoiding difficult conversations because I didn’t want to “lose them” and lose money.  If I wasn’t able to contain or face my anxiety, how could I help anyone else contain or face theirs?

2. I’m a good enough therapist to not try to be good enough for everyone.

When I was in grad school, it was the perfect storm.  As students, we social workers had it drilled into our heads that we had to help everyone.  This was a natural fit with my yearning to help everyone that I came into contact with, in order to prove I was good at what I did.  Remember the phrase “a Jack of all trades is a master of none?”  That’s where I’d be if I kept on the road if my ego and my grad school had held sway.

But after a short amount of time I realized that there was plenty of work to go around, AND that different people enjoyed working with different types of patients.  So now I am confident enough to know that I can do the work and enjoy it.

3. I’m an excellent therapist with some patients.

After a few years, I had done enough good work, and enough medicore work, to begin to notice when I was doing excellent work.  I do good enough work with couples, depression and anxiety.  I do mediocre work with eating disorders drug addiction and alcoholism.  Where I am an Epic Therapist is with gamers, geeks, LGBT individuals, adolescents and trauma.

By saying this I am not diminishing any of the issues or groups I am less than Epic with.  Nor am I trying to say I am the best therapist in the world, there are lots of people who do just as good or better treatment than I do.  What I am saying is that I am a specialist and a thought leader in very specific niche, that’s what makes me Epic.  Think of what that work is for you, and that will be what makes you Epic.

Since I do the traditional 45-50 min psychotherapy hour, and since I need to sleep sometimes, I can only see a finite number of patients in a week.  Saying no to referrals allows me to continue providing therapy at the most optimal level, and I can honestly say that my work is often enjoyable and always gratifying and meaningful.

4.  Saying no to referrals allows me to have a socially just practice.  Let’s talk money for a minute.  After all, that’s one of if not the main reason one wants a full practice, to make money.  I need to make a certain amount of it to support my family and contribute to our household.  But I have always been clear that I want a diverse practice, and that includes working with low-income patients.  So I always have a certain number of hours that I offer PB+5 or 10 appointments.  In order to provide those I need to be thoughtful about the patients I begin working with for reasons financial as well as clinical.  This means being thoughtful about referrals for reasons financial as well as clinical, and that means saying no to referrals.

5. Saying no can be a networking opportunity.

When I don’t take a referral, I usually try to make a referral for the caller.  Just because I say no to a referral doesn’t mean I can’t be useful in recommending someone else.  This keeps me engaged with my colleagues and understanding who might be a good referral for any given person.  I can be more informative than a list from an HMO, and hopefully it gives a more educated referral for the person.

This is also good business, because it helps me continue to talk with my peers about who they enjoy working with, and what their expertise is.  It also has generated more informed referrals for me, both for patients and supervisees.

So these are some of the reasons I often say no to new referrals:  To say no to fear, to stay clear with myself about my strengths and weaknesses, to do the best clinical work, make enough money to do pro bono work, and to be a part of a professional network.  It’s OK to say no to referrals, even when you’re starting out.  Especially when you’re starting out.

Why Therapist Directories Are A Waste Of Time

This post is for all of you who have been considering or actively using listings in therapist directories.  I frequently get asked from consultees which directories they should list in.  I also frequently see colleagues debating on bulletin boards and listservs the merits and demerits of individual directories.  So I figure it’s time to offer you my perspective.  Please bear in mind that I am sharing my experience and opinions here, and if you’ve had a different one, hopefully you’ll mention it on the comments.  If you own a directory service, I hope you’ll disclose that as well.

When I started building my practice, I had a lot of time to spend filling out various online directories.  I literally spent hours filling out profiles that promised to make me visible to potential patients.  To be fair it gave me the opportunity to hone my bio and elevator speech, but other than that I now think that I was wasting my time.  But let’s talk a little about why directories may be a waste of your time, because I think it points to a larger misconception about marketing your practice online.

Billboard in a bottle.

Many therapists still approach the internet as if it was a giant Yellow Pages.  We often create static content, the equivalent of a business card, cover letter and resume, and then slap it up on a website, or a directory.  Then we sit back and wait for the phone to ring.  It’s like we imagine that we created a giant billboard and threw it into the world wide web.  But in reality, it’s more like a message in a bottle, thrown in a vast ocean.  We imagine that that will get us recognized.  It usually doesn’t, and here’s why.

If you google “find a therapist” you will literally find dozens of website directories guaranteed to help patients find the right provider.  If you’re ambitious you could spend hours and days finding all of them and entering your information.  Many of them are free, some charge money, and a few don’t let you know whether they will charge or not until you’ve entered all of your information.  One of the main problems with directories is exactly that there are so many of them.

One thing I’ve learned from starting up social networks for other companies is that you always need a critical mass of members as quickly as possible.  If you launch a site you have a few days to a week to achieve this in most cases.  Otherwise potential members will log in to your site, look around and see little activity, and leave.  So low enrollment of providers in a directory will drive little traffic to it.

On the other hand, if you take a directory like Psychology Today’s you will see that they did achieve a critical mass, and have more traffic.  But the problem here is that this is because every therapist and her maiden aunt is now listed there.  So the problem becomes how to set yourself apart from the rest.  If you are determined to spend time on listing yourself in a directory, I’d suggest that you pay for the PT one and try to distinguish yourself as best you can.  In fact, the Psychology Today site is the only directory I even try to keep current and pay for anymore.

Speaking of keeping current, here’s the other potential pitfall of directories:  The more you participate in, the more you’ll need to update your content, remember more passwords, and check back in.  Some directories require you to log in any time you get a message from a potential client (or spam) in an effort to drive up their traffic.  It’s a lot of hassle for little ROI.

If you are determined to list yourself in directories, please consider the following:

  • If you are planning on practicing online, does the directory have global traffic?
  • If you are planning on practicing in a certain geographic location, does the directory get traffic from your part of the world?
One way to research this a little is to run the site’s address on Alexa, which will often tell you some information about traffic or rankings by country.
But while we’re talking about Alexa, let’s talk about how those numbers can be misleading.  Alexa allows you to download the Alexa toolbar, which allows you to check a site’s alexa traffic rank, but it also allows Alexa to tabulate traffic to any site your browser visits, which is part of how they get those numbers.  So it is very easy to drive traffic numbers up artificially.  How?  Easy, set your homepage to your website, and every time you open up your browser, it opens to your site, and adds to your number of visits.  Not enough?  No problem, have all of your family members do the same on their computers.  Within days, your ranking will rise dramatically, without any real rise in potential referral visits. So keep that slight-of-hand in mind when you look at a therapist directory’s traffic. Maybe they do have 100s of visits a day, or maybe they have 10 people who have that site as their home page to drive up traffic.
So Now You Know.

When I review my practice referrals, I received probably %10 of them from a directory, usually Psychology Today.  The majority of my referrals came from word of mouth, insurance company lists, and increasingly my blog and articles.  By now, many of you will know where I am going with this:  It is content and interaction that convert visits to your website into referrals.  There is not a similar conversion rate from visits to your directory profile and calls to you, or even visits to your website.

Some may disagree with me, but my take on directories is that they are a waste of time, and that they capitalize on therapists’ reluctance to generate interactive and dynamic content.  Put simply, people want to hang up their cybershingle and then go back to passively waiting for the phone to ring.

To spend a lot of time finding and listing yourself in a therapist directory is to confuse worry with effort.  What you should be doing (Oh Nos! A therapist used the word “should” ;-) ) is generating content and creating opportunities for interaction with colleagues and potential patients.  Examples of generating content include:

  • writing brief informative blog posts
  • tweeting links to articles that you find interesting to establish your “brand”
  • offering a free hangout on Google+ on your niche topic
  • creating a meditation podcast that people can download from your site
  • networking in Second Life or attending the Online Therapy Institute’s open office hours
  • doing a five-minute vblog on a CBT technique

I’ve done many of the above, and this blog post is another example.  I guarantee you that this post will generate a new referral for me at some point soon, much sooner than my Psychology Today profile will.

So please take the time you could be playing it safe cutting and pasting your info into yet another directory, and instead take some risks, create some new content, or join in a conversation online.  Web 2.0 is not about being a digital classified ad. Use your time marketing to do what therapists do best: Relate.

Integrity Is Your Brand.


Recently I had two experiences which took me a bit by surprise. The first was when a representative from an online gambling site contacted me and asked me to consider affiliating with their website.  Apparently they had read several of my blogs and found my site and the posts to be in their words “respectable” and “well written.” They wondered how much I’d charge for them to be able to include a link to their site in my next blog.

As many of you can guess, I derive no direct monetary income from this blog.  The revenue I do get comes in requests for consultation, workshops and speaking engagements from people find me through this site, and summer is slower in those areas.  Needless to say the idea of making some money from the blog is always tempting.  And I have nothing against online gambling per se.  But I declined, and at this point I can’t imagine accepting advertising or affiliating.  It might be more tempting if Blizzard or Nintendo were to call, but even then I would have to decline.  Not because I think affiliate marketing is inherently wrong, but because in this case something more valuable is at stake.

The second experience didn’t involve money, but it was actually an even harder decision.  Not long ago I had the privilege of being elected to the board of a professional organization.  I’ve been on several boards, so I was expecting to commit a lot of time and work to this one.  What I wasn’t expecting was to get a call from the chair about my blog.  Seems that someone had forwarded a post where I criticized several organizations for their stance on technology, including this one.  I was told that I’d have to retract the post, and refrain from making any future critical posts about the group.

This is an organization I think highly of, and I can tell that the members of this group are not just in it for the title.  I’m sure I could have done a lot of good serving on it.

But again, I had to decline.

Neither money nor a titular position is more important than my integrity.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say to you that integrity is your brand.

It’s important not to make the mistake of demonizing either of the two parties in the examples.  There is nothing inherently wrong with marketing or in my opinion online gambling.  But I have not built my reputation on being an expert on gambling, and I’m not one.  So even though the website might derive benefit from having a respectable blog link to them, I wouldn’t.  Sure money is great, but as I said, something more valuable, my integrity, might be lost.  I have worked too hard and too long to risk losing that.

I can also understand the board’s point of view: As an ambassador of the organization, whatever I say about it, critical or otherwise could be problematic for them.  I don’t agree with them entirely, but when I understood what was expected my choice was clear.  This blog isn’t Mashable, but many of you have been reading it for as long as it has been up.  And people expect me to tell it like it is, whether it be about technology, gamer-affirmative therapy, or growing your private practice.  If you’ve read the comments you know that everyone doesn’t always agree with my point of view.  But many people have come to find the blog, and me, consistent and honest.  There are other people who can do board work, but without my integrity there is no blog.

At the risk of sounding self-righteous, I know that writing this has made a difference in the lives of therapists and the patients they treat.  It has allowed me to gain access to publications and groups to spread the word that technology is not incompatible with therapy, and that gamers need therapists who are culturally competent in gaming rather than contemptuous prior to investigation.  Seasoned clinicians have told me that they have begun to rethink some of the cherished ideas our field holds about addiction, and fledgling therapists have sought me out for supervision on how to grow and market a profitable and socially just practice.  And of course writing for all of you has helped me feel “powered-up” to continue to do the work even when there’s pushback from colleagues and our field.

I’m not telling you this just for catharsis.  And I don’t have that “Blog With Integrity” badge on the blog just for show.  Here’s what I want to make sure you know:

One day, maybe very soon if it hasn’t already happened, you’re going to realize you’re a success.  You’ll realize that you haven’t been worrying about your practice as much, or that your caseload is full, or that you’re being asked to teach on your expertise.  One day, you’re going to be a success.  And when that happens, you’re going to have opportunities that require you to make tough choices.  Because people will notice you’ve become successful. Whether it be those word of mouth referrals or podcast interviews, you’re going to have become more influential.  Some people will want to harness your influence to help them, others will want to harness it to control it.  And the only person who can decide what choice to make is you.

If you don’t feel comfortable seeing yourself as successful or influential, that’s your problem.  Ignorance is always a vulnerability.  You matter.  The work you do matters.  Your thoughts and opinions matter.  Its when we don’t think we have an impact that we hurt our patients, our families, our business, in fact our world.

Immanuel Kant once said, “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”  I take this to mean act as if anything you were about to do in your life would become a universal law for how to do it.  That’s heavy stuff.  It’s not easy to decide how to act in a way that you’d be willing to have be the way to act for the rest of your life. In this case, blog with integrity.

Integrity is your brand.  Are you willing to do what keeps you whole and constant in your therapy, business and life?  Do you stand up for the things you believe in even when they cost you money, comfort or being liked? And perhaps most difficult, are you willing to notice your success, admit that you matter, and live with the knowledge that you have an impact on the world?

What Google+ Could Mean For Therapy

Every technology reveals the hand that shaped it.  The technology of the 21st Century is no exception:  Social Media has proliferated because human beings are inherently social creatures, even when that sociability takes on different forms.  And the explosion of access to information was detonated by our own curiosity.

For better or for worse (usually worse) our ability to engineer and zeal to use technology usually outstrips our ability to behave well with it, and in a large part I believe that this is what spurs on our refinement of it.  Listservs are a great example:  They allowed amazing access to online community through emails and postings, and they elevated the concept of “flame war” in comments to a new level.  Eventually, email and bulletin boards were insufficient to allow us to be sociable, and Web 2.0, with its emphasis on interactivity and real-time community was born.

And then Facebook, MySpace, Friendster and other social network platforms quickly outstripped the listserv and bulletin board.  The emphasis became on finding and connecting with old friends, acquiring new ones, and maintaining a steady if sometimes awkward flow of real-time announcements, status updates and feedback to them.  The online world expanded exponentially, and in fact that interactivity and information became overwhleming.

Which brings us to Google+.

For those of you who have not had the pleasure, Google+ is a new social networking platform (and in many ways much more than that) which has brought a new level of functionality to online social media.  Although it is still in beta, the number of people participating in the largest usability test in the history of the world is growing by leaps and bounds.  If your patients have not mentioned it, it is only a matter of time before they do, and that alone should be a good reason to learn to use it.  But in fact, Google+ has already begun to show me how valuable it may be in actual treatment.

So today I want to introduce you to two of the core concepts of Google+, Streams and Circles, and show you how each of these may present you and your patients with an arena to talk about psychological concerns and skills in therapy.

Circles

The Google+ system of circles is as powerful as it is flexible.  Whereas on Facebook you really had only one big group of people called your Friends, Google allows you to create and label various circles, such as “Friends,” “Colleagues,” and “Family.”

 

 

The interface let’s you drag the name and image of different people located on the top to one or more of the circles below.  When you mouse over the circle it expands to give you an idea of who you have put in it.  And if you drag a person to the grey and white circle on the far left, you can create a new circle, one which you label yourself.  For example, I have a circle for “Minions.”  I’ve always wanted minions.

This graphic representation of the way we can and often do categorize people in our life may allow our patients to visualize the decisions and boundaries they struggle with in real life.  This can be especially useful with patients on the autistic spectrum.  We can begin by empathizing with them when we upload our 1000 email contacts, and discover that we now have an overwhelming 1,000 individuals to make sense of.  Who goes where?  Is everyone a friend?  Can we put people in more than one circle?  Decide to take them out of one and into another, like say out of “acquaintance” and into “friend”?  What sort of circles might we want to create that Google+ didn’t give us?

People with Aspergers often have exceptional spatial reasoning, and can find mapping out relationships very helpful.  Now they have a dynamic way to do this, and a visual representation of how unruly and confusing social relationships can be.  Even though we can use this only as a powerful metaphor and coneptual tool, we could go even further.  Inviting a patient to bring in their laptop and taking a look at Google+ could be a helpful intervention.  We could help them explore and decide how to set up their own personal boundaries and affectional investment.

Or imagine for a second you are working on emotional regulation issues with a patient.  You can encourage them to create circles like “love them,” “Push my buttons,” “scary,” “feel sad,” and help them take a snapshot of their life at any given time to see who they want to put in each circle.  Do some people go in more than one circle of affect?  Do they notice that they are taking people in and out of circles frequently, or never?

Or imagine working with social phobia, and trying to help the patient brainstorm what activities they might want to try to invite someone to.  They can create circles like “Go to movies,” “Have dinner,” “Learn more about them,” and other options for various levels and types of engagement, and then they can sort people into those.  And all of a sudden they also have a visual list of who they can call when they are trying to socialize.

Last example, working with trauma and/or substance abuse.  Circles can be created for “Triggers me,” “Can call when I want a drink,” “My supports,” “self-care partners,” etc.  Then populate each with the people in their life, so they have a ready-made resource for when they are in crisis.  It also can be very illuminating to share and explore this in therapy, allowing you to make comments like, “what do you make of the fact that most of the people in your family circle are also in your triggers one, but not in the support one?  What do you think you could do about that?”

So these are just a few quick examples of how you can use the Circle concept of Google+ to understand your patients better, help them understand themselves better, and use social media to intervene in a variety of situations.

Streams

In Google+ circles go hand in hand with your Stream or Streams.  A stream is a stream of comments, updates, links to information, invitations, photos, video and other media, posted by people in your circles.  It is probably important to note here that similar to Twitter, you can invite people into your circle without their permission, but that doesn’t mean they will invite you back.  And you can set each circle to have different levels of access to your posts.  In other words, circles and streams together allow you to learn and set boundaries.  Here’s what a Stream can look like:

This is only the fraction of the incoming Stream, which gives you a sense of how multimedia, interactive, and possibly uninteresting some of it could be sometimes.  Much like Twitter, or like life.  If we had to pay attention to everyone all the time in the same way, we would become very fatigued.  Like our patients with ADHD, we would be overwhelmed despite our best attempts to understand at times.  Again, we can use this technology that our patients may be familiar with to begin to deepen our empathic attunement with them.  But it gets even more interesting.

If you look at the upper left-hand corner under Stream, you will see a list of your circles, in this case family, friends, acquaintances, etc.  Now if you click on any of those circles, the Stream changes.  Specifically, it changes to list only the posts from the people in any given circle clicked.  This synergy between circles and streams highlights not only the importance of privacy, but that focussing our attention is inherently a social as well as cognitive function.

Imagine working with an adolescent and reviewing their streams together.  What sorts of media, comments, and concerns are streaming through their lives at any given moment?  And what is the consequence of having 500 “friends” in their friend circle?  Do they feel intimate or able to attend to all of these friends?  Or are there some times that they may be more interested in attending to some friends than others?  If so, why?  Might it be time to start to rethink what it means to be a friend?  Is it ok to select who they attend to at certain times?  Do they really find the content they get from A interesting?  And if it is consistently uninteresting, does that say anything about their relationship?  Sorting through Streams to make sense of their world quickly becomes a talk about sorting through their values and their relationships.

For a second example, let’s return to the patient with ADHD.  Perhaps they could create circles for “School,” “Fun,” “Work,” “Family,” and sort people that way.  That way when they are doing work for school they can focus only on the Stream for the School Circle, which may contain links to papers, classmate comments, or lecture recordings from their professor.  If that stream starts to have too many other types of posts, maybe that is an indicator that someone is in the wrong circle, or that they need to only be in the “Fun” one until that paper is done.  Remember the circles are easily adjusted back and forth, so this is neither difficult or permanent to do.  But these types of decisions and focussing techniques may be crucial to staying on task.  (For those of you who might be ready to suggest that they not need to follow any Streams when they are studying, I encourage you to take a look with them at how much academic content and collaborative learning is done online before you rush to judgment.  It’s not always just “playing on the computer” now.)

Other ways that you can use Streams to help your patients therapeutically may come to mind if you reflect on the names of their circles.  Do they really want to follow the Stream of posts from their “Pushes My Buttons Circle?”  Maybe they’d rather tune into a steady Stream from their “Supports” circle instead?  And what might happen if they created a circle for “Intimates” that only contained people that touched them in deeply meaningful ways?  Could they still enjoy their “Friends” Stream, but switch to a “Skeleton Crew” one when they are needing to simplify their social life?

We make these decisions all the time, we just aren’t always conscious or overt about it.  And if we don’t make those decisions, we often suffer for it by overextending or stressing ourselves.  We need to have boundaries and filters.  We need to be able to focus and set limits and values.  These needs have begun to be more clearly revealed by the technology of Google+.  Knowing about that technology may improve our ability to treat our patients.

Five Tips For Your Practice This Summer

SEO & Y-O-U.

There’s No Such Thing As A Safe Place

The older I get, the more I begin to appreciate Melanie Klein.  I think Melanie gets a bad rap for her vivid and primitive descriptions of object relations, and the psychotic processes that describe the best attempts by the developing infant to make sense of the world.

But when I reflect on Klein’s description of the depressive position, I like to imagine that Klein and the Buddha would get along really well.  They’d probably agree that existence is suffering, in that it is a normal part of the universe, and that a mature understanding of suffering is that it is inevitable, and on a human level it is often in terms of the desire to gratify urges and avoid pain.

But this blog is about social media and confidentiality, and therapy actually.

Every few weeks, on one of the several forums in which I participate, some eruption occurs.  Some therapist writes about something, and then someone else quotes it in a video, or blogs about it, or cuts and pastes it somewhere else.  And then everyone gets outraged, because the confidentiality of the group has been violated.  And words like violation and boundaries get thrown around, and inevitably someone chides someone else about not respecting that the group is a safe space.

Somewhere along the line, we therapists got the idea that there is such a thing as a safe space. There is not.  Maybe, at best, there’s the “safe enough space.”  But setting aside for a minute that Facebook is not a consultation room, let’s take a look at what safe often stands in for.  When someone says, “I don’t feel safe,” they are often trying to use that expression of feeling to manipulate their environment, rather than check in with us about their emotional state.  Safe is often a code word for “I want you to do something different,” such as:

Safe means you take responsibility for my lack of caution

Safe means you have to respond to me in a conscripted way

Safe means you can or can’t say things if they’ll cause an unpleasant feeling in me

 

I wonder how many of my colleagues have ever been in a group as a patient?  I remember the group therapy experience I had in graduate school.  We had to take a course, it was mandatory, and in the middle the class “turned into” a group for 45 minutes.  I remember one class, er, group where I said something and then got a very upsetting response, and after group, um, class I locked myself in a rest room and cried for a good 10 minutes.  Didn’t feel safe at all.  But it did feel real.

I tend to believe that therapy is never safe, that’s why our patients are so damned brave.

But anyway, somewhere along the line, we therapists have gotten this idea drilled into our heads, and think we can create some sort of bubble that is safe.  And we conflate the ideas that childhood trauma and having our feelings hurt are the same thing.  And we assume that if we make a rule everyone is going to follow it, which is bizarre if you consider what you might say if a patient came in and said to you, “I’ve decided that at the workplace it is not ok if people talk about me when I’m out sick.”  I imagine you’d think that was rather entitled of them, and yet we wave the flag of entitlement around all the time and say we agree that we’ll do/not do X, Y, or Z in an online forum to make a “safe space,” and then are amazed when it doesn’t happen.

Look, first off, this is not about technology.  People need to stop worrying about whether to use social media and start worrying about how they comport themselves when using it. It’s sort of like saying I am not going to use the phone because I’m afraid I’ll get a prank call.  The forums, Facebook, Twitter, are not the problem.  We are the problem.  Us, human beings.  Because we somehow think that we can behave differently online than in real life.  And because we want to imagine that every professional is going to agree how to behave and behave that way all the time.  I never write anything online without assuming that it will be read by my patients, supervisees, friends, enemies, exes and my mother.  And someday my children and grandchildren.  If you are a therapist and you want private supervision, go buy some.  Don’t expect that you will get good supervision from a 100-person forum.  It’s not because there aren’t a lot of brilliant clinicians online, there are.  It’s because forums are not supervisions, you can get some great tips, but generally any dilemma that has got you rattled enough to sound off on it is probably one for a supervisor.

Second, I’m with Melanie Klein and Buddha on this one.  We’re often pushing through our life trying to get to a safe secure place so we can hunker down and stop changing.  If I have enough money, I’ll feel safe.  If I have a home, I’ll feel safe.  If I have a career I’ll feel safe.  If I have a different career I’ll feel safe.  I won’t feel secure until you marry me.  I won’t feel secure until we start a family.  I won’t feel secure until the children grow up, I won’t feel safe until we separate.  The list goes on.  We’re always seeking refuge rather than embracing change.  This is what Pema Chodron is talking about when she talks about the “Wisdom of No Escape.”

Take a look around us.  There are still 100,000 soldiers stationed in Afghanistan.  Mothers kill their young children and hide their bodies.  College students get bullied for being gay and jump off bridges.  Where is/was their safe space?  We need to get out of our bubble of delusion in my opinion.  The idea of a safe space is a spurious concept born of white privilege and naivete, the expectation that we can enforce it is born of entitlement.

There’s a great song from Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along which one of the characters sings after another has had something terrible happen to him:

All right, now you know:
Life is crummy.
Well, now you know.

I mean, big surprise:
People love you and tell you lies.
Bricks can fall out of clear blue skies.
Put your dimple down,
Now you know.

(For the full lyrics, go here )

 

Klein’s theory of development posits that mature development arrives at the depressive position.  Depressing name, but what the depressive position is all about is realizing that human beings are not all good or all bad, but inconsistent, imperfect, complicated and mysterious.  We’re noble and we cheat.  We’re sensitive and inconsiderate, loving and jealous, honest and sneaky.  All of us.

Believe it or not, I don’t think things are bleak.  I don’t think life is crummy.  But I do think there’s a lot of work to be done, and if you want to help with some of it here’s one way you can.  There’s a lot to be hopeful about as well, and people can make things better for the world.  But we need to tolerate what it looks like.

There’s no such thing as a safe space.  Stop waiting for one.  Try now, take risks.  Think about what you say to who before you say it online, just as you would offline.  Be cautious, be brave.  Take risks, then learn from your mistakes.

And if you catch yourself saying, “I thought at least here I’d be safe,” it’s probably time to get moving.

 

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Don’t Run Your Practice Like An HMO

I was surprised today to get a letter from a local insurance company, authorizing payment to me for a session I’d done in September of last year.  I wasn’t sure whether to be annoyed or laugh (I decided to laugh) and as I was grumbling about insurance companies I realized that they have taught me what to do and not do with my own billing.

Let’s face it, most therapists don’t like billing and most therapists don’t like insurance.  (If you’re not a therapist, read on anyway, you might find it interesting.)  Insurance companies are as a rule very difficult to deal with.  They make us go through elaborate credentialing processes to join a network that pays us a fraction of our fee.  And when we submit claims they often hold on to them for months, delaying our payment.  Or they reject the claim because of some technicality, or request a half hour conversation with us to review the treatment so that they can find a reason to stop paying for it.  Insurance companies are insulated by layers of administration and bureaucracy, and finding the person to answer the question or authorize treatment can take forever.  In fact, the whole premise of insurance has been to have a large enough risk pool of paying clients that they can offset the damages they incur and still make a profit.  In short, insurance companies are avoidant, outdated, and hostile to claims.

So why are we just like them?

Therapists groan about insurance companies, and yet we often act just like them when it comes to running our business.  We avoid filing claims as long as we can, so that we’ll get reimbursement checks that are bigger and “worth the effort.”  We avoid streamlining our billing processes.  And we are extremely hostile when it comes to having to file claims to get paid.

Don’t run your practice like an insurance company. Instead, here are some suggestions for you:

1. Don’t delay your billing by unnecessary process. Take a few minutes to look at the way you process bills.  Are you writing them down in a ledger, maybe more than one?  Do you try to sort things by insurance company rotating different companies at different times of the month?  Do you have elaborate formulas for payment plans for your patients’ co-pays?  (That’s insurance fraud by the way.)  Do you have a calendar that you transfer to your ledger?  Or if you have a software program do you enter the same data in several different places?  If you are doing any of these things, you’re wasting your time.  Come up with one strategy and stick with it, and cut down the number of steps that any strategy you come up with has.

2. Don’t avoid by storing up your accounts receivable. You hate it when an insurance company sits on your claims, don’t do the same thing when it comes to your own accounts receivable.  Don’t store up and hoard your accounts receivable to bill “later.”  Your patients and you both deserve for you to bill promptly even if it is a $15 co-pay.  Don’t drag out your co-pay billing for more than a month at most.  Aside from sending a devaluing message to your patients, (“I don’t need that tiny amount of money”) it adds up and can become a source of anxiety to them.  Bill out in smaller amounts on a regular basis, and if you don’t, ask yourself what your behavior is expressing about billing.  Storing up your accounts receivable may present you with bigger checks later, but irregular ones.  For people who know the value of consistent structure, we certainly drop the ball on this one, and then what happens?  You see your bank account is low and you say, “I’ve got to do my billing.” And even if you send it out that day, you’ve just set yourself up for a few weeks of anxious trips to the mailbox to see if the money has finally arrived.

3. Don’t treat patient payments like a risk pool. When it comes to billing, don’t rely on a few consistently paying patients to help you avoid billing the rest.  If you allow patients to carry a balance set a dollar figure that is consistent across all of them.  Mine is $400, because I know that if a patient carries a higher balance than that I may start to get annoyed and that will create static in the treatment.  My billing office thinks my limit is too high, but it is what has worked for me and allowed me to be consistent.  By all means set your own limit, but don’t have 30 different billing schedules and expectations for 30 different patients!  It isn’t fair to the ones who pay regularly, and it also isn’t fair to the ones who don’t.  And it also isn’t fair to you.  This may work for the insurance companies, but it definitely won’t work for your business.

4. Do your billing every 1-5 days. You heard me, every 1-5 days.  None of this once a month or every few weeks or “when I have to” stuff.  You’re in business and businesses bill their customers promptly and regularly.  And here’s what’s really cool, if you bill every 1-5 days after a while you’ll begin to get paid every 5-7 days.  That’s it for this one, 1-5 days, no excuses.

5. Do lose the paper. Not as in misplace it, but as in get rid of it!  Many of you are probably saying to yourselves, “he’s crazy.  I don’t have time to do all that paperwork every few days!”  There’s the problem, you’re still using paper!  Start billing electronically, most insurance companies have that capability, and there are plenty of software programs out there that can help.  When I used software I would send out that days appointments at 5:30, took 15 minutes.  The first few times you will need to spend more time on it by typing in things to the program’s database, but after that it goes pretty quickly.  And if you can get in the habit of typing in the first part of the intake the day of the intake, that’s even better.

6. Do use a billing service. I saved the best for last.  If you don’t want to do billing yourself, fess up to it.  It’s a reasonable business expense to have.  I haven’t missed the money I pay to my billing service CMS Billing one bit.  The amount of money they have captured for me (including the check from last September) has probably offset what I pay them.  In addition, they do all my billing intakes, insurance authorizations, credentialing and customer service for billing questions.  The time they have freed up has allowed me to develop workshops, write this blog, and engage in other creative and lucrative aspects of my business.  Remember that when it comes to owning a business you need to spend money to make money.  Don’t be a tightwad, hire a billing service.  Then you won’t have to worry as much about the technology part.  But bear in mind that they can only bill as quickly as you report accounts receivable to them, so you still need to do that every few days.

As I write this, 97% of my accounts receivable are under 30 days.  I get my money with regularity, and my patients know what to expect when they reach the $400 mark.  This is possible for you as well!  As this fiscal year draws to a close, take some time to take stock of your billing practices.  If you’re acting more like a lending company or an HMO it may be time to change.

 

 

When Is A Private Practice Like A Pipeline From Rhode Island?

Several times a month I get calls from prospective patients contacting me to provide psychological testing. Problem is, I don’t do psychological testing. Not my training, not my technology, and last but not least not my interest. But nevertheless every month I get calls.

I get these calls from students at a local college, who were referred to me by student support services, and I know exactly who is referring them to me. I know because back when I was building my practice, I marketed heavily to people in the education field, because of my background in providing psychotherapy for people with learning differences. I clearly made a good impression, because the referrals keep coming, and there are lots of other people out there who could be getting them. This is an example of what I call a pipeline from Rhode Island.

Imagine if you will how much oil gets piped from Alaska to refineries, probably a lot. Because Alaska is sitting on a lot of oil resources. Now imagine how much oil would get pumped to an oil refinery from the pipeline if it was from Rhode Island. Not a lot. Little Rhody has a lot of resources if you want music (Newport Folk Festival) or it’s top export, waste and scrap gold but oil doesn’t run strong in the Ocean State.

A pipeline doesn’t do you much good if you don’t have the resources that are being looked for by those coming down the pipeline. This is an example of a mistake I made early on in building my practice that hopefully you won’t make. You see, I just wasn’t clear enough on what I had to offer potential patients. I was more focussed on getting my name and number out there, and rattling off my condensed version of my CV. So through no fault of their own, people heard, “Hi I’m Mike Langlois… Psychotherapy … Experience with Learning Disabilities … ADHD … School functioning…” and filled in the blanks.  I now have this great pipeline from a local college that consistenly feeds me absolutely zero referrals that I can use!

This was reflective of a few problems I’d had back then:

1. Starting a business is not like applying for a job. I was still in the frame of mind that my CV was the touchstone for presenting myself professionally. My soundbite was there a compression of that, rather than focussing in what my ideal patient and expertise is. This was because I was used to applying for a job, having an interview with an agency, and trying to explain how I could do excellent work with every patient in their demographic.  Yet this one-size-fits all approach was exactly why I wanted to run my own practice!  So although I was marketing my practice, I was presenting as a job applicant.  To be fair I was trying to present a niche rather than the generic “I work with people who have anxiety and depression,” but I could have done a better job of conveying what kind of work I do, which brings us to the next problem.

2. Not everyone knows what psychotherapy is! You may have noticed that people think social workers take children from homes, psychologists prescribe medications, psychiatrists ONLY prescribe medications, psychoanalysts do Rorschach tests, or any other number of nuggets of misinformation floating around out there. So even if you are clear on what you like to do or who you enjoy working with, it pays to be specific about what you do. Just a few examples:

“I evaluate children to see if medication can support their learning.”

“I do talk therapy with people who have trouble being happy in relationships.”

“I provide psychological testing to help people identify learning disabilities.”

“I testify as an expert witness about the mental and social functioning of families and their individual members.”

3. Don’t just “say” you have a niche, don’t be afraid to want a niche. Like many people I have consulted with since, I was giving some lip service to having a niche but really was afraid to have one. As a result I would water down my explanation of who I was and what I could do so that I could have a broader “appeal.” Trust me, there are plenty of people out there to help, we can be specific in who we want to work with. And it makes it easier for colleagues to refer to you specifically. We have been conditioned by decades of managed care to think our major qualifications are “I take X insurance,” and “I’m .75 miles from the patient’s work/home.”  Those are not your major selling points. So ask yourself again, who do I want to work with?

Bottom line? Take time figuring out who you really want to work with, and then when you are presenting yourself in the community stick with that. Insurance companies will feed you the people who are looking for a .75 mile away therapist (and many of these will turn out to be great referrals even though not necessarily the best reason,) so with your own marketing be more picky.  One of the great things about reading this blog is that it hopefully gives you a chance to avoid making some of the same misconnected pipelines that I did when I was getting started.  One of the great things about writing it is that I get to research the top export of Little Rhody. Now if someone ever needs scrap gold I won’t send them to Alaska…

Therapist Websites Are Not Enough

Last March a friend and former graduate student I supervised was visiting me from out of town. He was telling me about a call he got that went something like this: “Hi Bob, great website! Would you like to do a workshop on creating a online presence for our chapter of NASW? You won’t be paid for this, but you’ll get exposure, what do you think?”

This sort of exchange contains every element you need to have to teach a lesson on how not to do things as a Web 2.0 therapist. Let’s break this down:

1. What you are doing is so valuable we’d rather not pay you for it. Anything that you would go to a workshop to learn is something you should be willing to pay for. Even if it was only $20, a small amount or honorarium is something you should offer when you recruit someone to help you. Offering a rationalization is not the same thing; if my former student needed exposure the last place to look for it would be from this cheapo crowd! I know we have had a longstanding tradition in the psychotherapy disciplines to expect that we will present papers or talks at big yearly conferences for free, and that kind of thing seems a little different in my mind, because they are national conferences or Symposia and have many presenters. But to recruit someone specific for a specific workshop and not pay them any honorarium seems both cheap and arrogant to me.

2. Online Presence=Having a web site. Wrong! A website is just one small (important, but small) part of having an online presence. Having a website is something you should have prior to trying to launch your online presence. Now opinions vary on how to get one. I have some colleagues who know this space who believe that Therapists need to hire someone to build a website for them, and I can see the merit of this. My own opinion is that WordPress and our current technology have made it possible to have a very professional website for a fraction of that price if you are willing to spend some time and a little extra money to get a framework like Genesis. That is the one I use, and this site is one that I was able to design and launch pretty quickly. I have an older site that is still out there, but doesn’t get anywhere near as many hits now. That being said, I do think that whether you build one or have a professional do that, you definitely ought to have a professional critique it. My colleague Juliet Austin has a expertise doing this, and having been in the market for a while, she has a great eye for dos and don’ts.

But having a website is not an online presence in 2011, it is a colorful classified ad. Yes it is necessary now that potential patients want to see and meet you before they see and meet you, but now that there are thousands of Therapists with websites it will not distinguish you much more than a Psychology Today profile. Having an online presence requires you have a vibrant combination of interactive dialogue, recommendations that establish your “brand” as a therapist, multiple forms of media to see, hear and read you, and some amount of change over time.

I’m not trying to discourage any of you from getting started online with a website, I just want to make sure you see it is only one component of having an successful online presence.

3. Professional Organizations need to become more professional when it comes to business and social media. Asking your constituents to take the lead without compensating them is just lame. But even more concerning are the attitudes I see many organization taking towards social media. One example recently was a workshop NASW was promoting on HIPAA and Social Media. The flyer began with the bold red words “Protect Yourself!” The workshop like many others I have seen approaches the Internet and Web 2.0 from the point of view of fear-mongering, if the advertisement is accurate. Be scared of social media. Don’t learn how to use it for marketing your business, let alone your clinical work. This is not the message we need from our leadership. Include a component on social media in a general ethics course, sure. But please stop fostering the association of technology with ethical risk, social media with liability.

Our professional organizations also need to put the same thought and care in finding expertise when it comes to Web 2.0 as they would other workshop topics. Would we ever email a colleague and say, “Hey, want to do a workshop for NASW on EMDR?” based on information as limited as a website? I doubt it. As leaders of our profession, our professional organizations need to treat the topic of social media and health care with the same care as other topics. Their endorsement gives an imprimatur. If they say, the only thing you need to know about social media is to avoid it or you’ll be sued, we learn nothing but fear. If they say, social media requires no expertise or experience, we underestimate the skills we all need to learn to use it.

Bob is a great guy and an excellent clinician, but his having a website doesn’t make one an expert. Being on Facebook or Twitter doesn’t make one an expert. Having 5-15 years of experience working in the space of Web 2.0 like Juliet, Susan Giurleo, or myself does. These are peer-vetted experts, experts vetted by peers in both the clinical and Internet fields. I used to be hesitant to say this, because even though I teach people how to self-promote as part of their business I still feel uncomfortable with it myself. But I feel it is important to make a distinction between people who have spent years and thousands of dollars learning how to integrate clinical practice and Web 2.0, and your colleague who has a nice website.

Look, we need to start taking social media seriously, 97% of our patients and other human beings use it. I applaud our professional organizations for trying to offer something. But the above approach reminds me of having your grandson hook up your DVD player when he comes home from college. It is shortsighted and underestimates the complexity of the matters at hand. At some point Therapists need to strike a balance between a healthy respect for the growing importance of social media and avoidant fear. And at some point we’re going to need to invest time, money, and serious thought into how, not if, we use it in our practice.