Author: Martinette Pienaar

I find myself smiling as I think back to when I first started my own private practice five years ago. I remember the excitement I experienced, the dreams I had of doing my own thing, being my own boss, creating my own space and enjoying my search for “the right” furniture. And then the sense of responsibility and the experience of anxiety that followed: I am on my own; I have to get this practice off the ground; I am the boss, the therapist but I am also the receptionist, the accountant, the debt collector, the cleaning lady… Starting a private practice is not easy, especially when you are on your own as a sole proprietor. I will share some of the lessons and experiences I have gained from my own practice as a Clinical Psychologist in Durbanville, Cape Town. In this edition I will give five basic guidelines flowing from my personal experiences and not necessarily universal truths applicable to all practices.

1. Positioning

The location of your practice is one of the most important things to consider. Will you be visible to new clients? Is there easy access to your consulting room? Position yourself close to supportive professions, e.g. close to doctors, a psychiatrist, pediatrician, social worker, and/or other supportive psychologists. We don’t always realize the marketing value of people just walking past your room and noting your signage board. It is about creating awareness and hopefully those same feet will soon walk through your door.

2. Flying solo

Private practice can be a very lonely place to be if you are practicing on your own. I often felt lonely, isolated and needing the support of a colleague to talk to. I also often hear other psychologists saying: “I feel so alone in this profession.” My recommendation to other psychologists is always to try and join an existing practice or to start a practice as a team of psychologists. We cannot deny the high incidence of psychological burn-out amongst psychologists. We work with people, with emotions and it does take its toll on you as an individual. Being alone in private practice also means that you carry the financial burden and overheads of a practice yourself.

3. Keep your costs down

Start with the basics and keep your overheads to the minimum. The décor in your practice is important as you are creating a public image surrounding your professionalism but be financially wise. Start with a basic psychometric battery. As the practice is growing you can build on what you already have. When you are first starting out you can work without the services of a receptionist. Try things like scheduling appointments 30 minutes apart to enable you to receive and greet clients yourself. This time will also give you the opportunity to reflect on your session and prepare for the next client.

4. Working hours

Have a daily routine with specific working hours. Motivate yourself to be in your consulting room at a certain time even when you do not have appointments. The same applies to the end of your working day. Report writing and other time-consuming activities can so easily keep you busy long after closing time. Try to avoid this as far as possible to free yourself from working after hours. If you do not have appointments or reports to write, use your working hours to do marketing, networking and refining your systems.

5. Answering machine

I have found that clients are seldom comfortable to leave messages on an answering machine. Try getting beyond the telephone answering system as soon as possible. You do not have to employ a receptionist for this. Consider using the services of a professional answering or appointment service. There are various options available: from call centers that answer your incoming calls and schedule appointments for you to online self-service appointment scheduling. You don’t want to lose potential clients when you are unable to answer the phone. Next time I will write about the business side of a private practice, including the business plan – something that justifies more attention than most psychologists would like to think.