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Ten Steps to a Healthy Complementary Therapy Practice

by Celia Johnson(more info)

listed in clinical practice, originally published in issue 82 - November 2002

There is no greater moment of pleasure than receiving the certificate for which you have worked so hard. A new career in complementary therapy beckons. The pleasure is often short lived, however, as your next thought is probably "Help, how do I get started?"

The following ten point plan should help you on your way to a successful and fulfilling practice.

1. Set Yourself Goals

You need to consider the kind of practice you would like to run, both in the short and long term. What sort of people would you like to treat? Where would you prefer to work? Are you able to work alone or would you prefer to be in a clinic with other therapists? How many hours do you expect to work? Will you need to fit treatments around an additional part time job? Although you may feel that you should just be grateful for any client who comes your way, you expect your practice to grow. It is important that it grows into a practice that utilizes your skills and brings you satisfaction.
How do see yourself in years to come? Do you envisage teaching, running your own school, or perhaps developing some related aspect of therapy? Even if your long-term ambitions are only at the back of your mind, you should be formulating some idea of how you would like your professional life to progress.

2. Provide a Valuable Service (and Charge an Appropriate Fee)

The well-known hairdresser John Frieda was once asked how he had become so successful. He replied that he tried to give each client the best haircut they had ever had. I believe that it is essential to be clear to yourself and others, that you are offering a valuable service, for which you should charge an appropriate fee. You must strive for excellence in your field and to promote the best interests of your client. Although it takes time to become confident and gain experience you can still be committed to giving good treatments. By doing so, you will begin to build a loyal client base and your reputation will spread by word of mouth.

Ring round other therapists in the area to establish the going rate and set your fees at a level with which you are comfortable. If you charge too much you will not attract enough clients, while charging too little undervalues your therapy. It will arouse suspicion in potential clients, who will wonder why you are so cheap, and you will upset other therapists who charge more realistically. It is sensible to review, but not necessarily increase, your fees annually.

3. Identify Your Niche

Do you have a special interest or area of expertise? What will distinguish your treatment from others? What would persuade clients to see you rather than other therapists in your neighbourhood? In marketing jargon, you need to promote your unique selling points.

For example, I have nursed, and have run my massage practice for over 13 years. Most of my clients are referred to me by doctors, physiotherapists, chiropractors and osteopaths. I am experienced in remedial work. However, I rarely give massage for relaxation. Nor do I have a sports injury qualification, so I tend to refer clients requiring those treatments elsewhere.

4. Establish a Good Reputation

Once you have an idea of your strengths you need to get your name known. You could write to local doctors, dentists, physiotherapists and other complementary therapists. Follow up your letter with a phone call. They are more likely to refer clients to you if you have been in contact with them personally. You might like to offer them a free treatment to introduce yourself and your therapy. You might also contact health or sports clubs.

Make friends with other therapists in your own speciality. For example, because I have a family, working evenings and weekends is difficult for me. I am always glad to hear of therapists who work when I cannot, so that I can pass on clients to them.

You could contact your local paper to see if someone would write an article about you. If you write the article yourself, the paper will charge you for an advertising feature. It could be worth the cost of doing one to get your name known. Local health exhibitions can be a useful source of clients. Although it will cost money to take a stand, those attending will already be interested in complementary therapies and may be looking for a therapist. You can also give talks to groups or charities. They are often looking for speakers. Some radio stations may be prepared to interview you if you have an interesting topic. Be aware that you could be asked at very short notice - possibly even the same day, so have a list of questions and answers prepared in advance.

The cost of advertising is a bottomless pit, so you need to decide on a budget and keep within it. Local newspapers may offer a discount for a regular advert. Be very careful how you word your advert, in order to avoid nuisance telephone calls. People will read all sorts of things into it that you have not necessarily written. Health food shops, libraries, Citizens' Advice Bureaux, sports clubs, new age bookshops, dentists doctors and chiropodists may be prepared to display your leaflet or business card. You should check supplies regularly to ensure that they do not run out.

5. Be Professional

Make sure that your telephone manner is business-like but welcoming. The client will not want to book a treatment with you if you do not create the right impression. Talk with the client to make sure you are able to provide what s/he needs. If possible, have a separate business line or mobile number so that you always know which will be a business call.

Listen to your intuition. If you are unhappy about taking on a particular client, tell them that you do not believe you are the right person to treat them. It is helpful to be able to refer them to someone more appropriate if possible. You might lose a client in the first instance, but they may well remember how responsibly you acted and tell their friends about you. You should also be aware of your own limitations and those of your therapy. It is illegal to claim that you can cure certain conditions such as cancer. Nor should you make any other exaggerated claims. It is better to be honest and risk losing a client, than to find yourself in a situation where you are out of your depth. (Or worse, involved in a court case).

You could write a general letter to a GP saying that you are treating his or her patient. You can give brief details of your therapy and a little about yourself. Letters to doctors should be as matter-of-fact as possible. Avoid references to things such as energy blocks and chakras, unless you expect your letter to end up in the bin!

Bear in mind that some of your clients may prefer that their GP does not know about their complementary therapy treatments. However, you must seek a doctor's consent if you are going to treat someone with a serious medical condition. If this happens, arrange the client's appointment far enough ahead for you to contact their doctor to give his (preferably written) consent. If a doctor refuses consent for you to treat a client, you should not do so, even if you think you could help. In your contact with the medical profession, remember that the doctor remains responsible for the care of his or her patient.

Maintain strict confidentiality for your clients. If you need to discuss them with another health professional, you must ask the client's permission to do so.

Do not criticize other health professionals or therapists and do not try to entice other therapists' clients to see you.

6. Take Out Adequate Insurance

We live in an increasingly litigious age. It is therefore essential to have sufficient insurance. Insurance is for your own protection as well as that of your clients. If your training school or professional body does not run a block scheme, you could go to one of the companies who specialize in insuring complementary therapists.

7. Keep Good Records

Keep full, coherent, legible notes on clients. They are a useful way of charting progress, but will also be invaluable should a client make a complaint or claim against you. You are unlikely to remember all the details of treatments without notes. I have had requests from solicitors for full copies of my notes in order to support a client's legal claims. For example, several of my clients involved in road traffic accidents have sued to recover the cost of treating a whiplash injury. The client must give his or her consent before you release any information in this way. Keep your notes where others will not be able to read them.

If you use your computer for keeping information such as details of treatment or diagnosis (e.g. if they have a medical condition) you may need to register with the Data Protection Act. If you only keep their contact details for registering payments on the computer, you will probably be exempt. The data protection details are given at the end of this article.

8. Plan Your Finances and Tax Affairs

If you are working on a self-employed basis, you are likely to need expert financial, tax and insurance advice. You must notify the Inland Revenue within three months of starting a new business. It is a good idea to find an accountant and an independent financial adviser early in your new career so that you can make the most of your earnings and ensure your financial and tax affairs are in order. Ideally, you should have a separate bank account for your business, and you should pay in all cash, even if you then have to withdraw it straight away. Do not be tempted to 'lose' cash payments, or offer a reduced fee for cash. The Inland Revenue frequently investigate small cash businesses.

9. Arrange Strategies to Avoid Isolation

Many therapists work alone and this can lead to isolation. Your training school may be a useful back-up for queries, but it is important to make contact with others working in your field. If you have done a good job of networking, you should have met others by now. Find out if there is a local support group. Some run interesting programmes with social events and speakers to help you to meet people and increase your knowledge. You could invite some therapists to meet at your home or in a pub. All therapists suffer from isolation at times and most really appreciate the chance to get together with like - minded colleagues.

10. Look After Yourself

It is essential to look after yourself properly, so that you are able to make the most of your career. As well as sufficient exercise and a healthy diet, you need regular breaks away from your job. It is easy to make yourself too available when first setting up a practice, as you want to gain as many new clients as possible. However, if you allow yourself to be at everyone's beck and call, you will become exhausted, stale and give inferior treatments. Clients will expect you to continue to be available at all times, because you have not set limits to your working hours.

During the course of your work, it is likely that clients may divulge things to you that you do not feel able to handle. Unless you are a trained counsellor, you should not attempt to become involved. You should acknowledge the client's distress and suggest they seek someone with the appropriate skills to help them. If the client's revelations have upset you, you may also need skilled support. Sometimes a friend's ear is all that is required. The Bach Flower remedies are very helpful. Rescue Remedy is good if you are upset, Walnut will help if someone is leaving their distress with you.

Taking adequate rest will help keep you healthy, enthusiastic and working at your best. You should also receive some of your own therapy on a regular basis. Clients may well ask if you yourself have regular treatment and you should be able to answer honestly that you do. You might consider arranging an exchange with another therapist.


The prospect of establishing a thriving practice can be daunting. However, with thought, determination to succeed and commitment to high standards of care, it can become reality. The joy of building your own practice is that you can develop it into anything you want. I wish you success and satisfaction.

Further Information

H & L Balen and Company Insurers and Independent Financial Advisers; Tel: 01684 893006
Ecology Insurance Brokers Ltd; Tel: 01245 225198
The Information Commissioner for the Data Protection Act; Tel: 01625 545700;


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About Celia Johnson

Celia Johnson has been a professional musician, a nurse, and for the last 13 years, a massage therapist. In addition to her own practice, she gives lectures to nurses on complementary therapies and runs workshops for therapists on starting a business. Her book How to be a Successful Therapist will be published by The Book Guild in January 2003. She can be contacted on

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