We were lucky to catch up with Nicola Ducharme recently and have shared our conversation below.
Nicola, looking forward to hearing all of your stories today. We’d love to hear the backstory of how you established your own practice.
When I first graduated from naturopathic medical school, I wanted to work alongside another practitioner so that I would have some mentorship and support, and hopefully some patient referrals, while I got my footing and gained some experience. I was very fortunate in that I did end up working for a wonderful doctor who provided all of those things and more. We had a great working relationship and it was the perfect start to my career.
As time went on though, I was drawn to the autonomy of having my own practice. I felt confident enough in my skills, and ready to go it alone. I knew that I wanted to start small and grow organically, and that something that I value to this day. I didn’t want to go into debt to create my practice, and have that stress hanging over me.
I rented a small space – just 400 square feet with one office and one waiting area. It was mine and I loved it. In the beginning I was everything – the doctor, the receptionist; I was answering all the emails myself, ordering all the products and going to the post office myself to send any shipments out. My patient base built gradually over time.
One thing that I feel was so important in my growth was that I chose one area and specialized. I now work almost exclusively with chronic Lyme disease patients. When I first started as an ND I remember feeling a bit lost, like I didn’t know who I was and what I was offering, and to which population. It was also very hard to promote myself to an audience of “everyone”. By specializing, and getting really good at, and known for, one thing, it’s made all the difference. I knew where to market myself when I needed to do that, could choose very specific lectures and conferences for meeting and networking with my colleagues.
Now that I’ve had my own business for over 15 years, I don’t have any regrets looking back about the way I did things. I feel that starting slowly and growing organically was important for me; and then choosing one field of medicine and specializing has really allowed me to develop a very focussed and specific group of people to serve.
Great, appreciate you sharing that with us. Before we ask you to share more of your insights, can you take a moment to introduce yourself and how you got to where you are today to our readers
My name is Nicola Ducharme, and I am a Naturopathic Doctor. Growing up in Australia I was always interested in a healthy lifestyle – it’s a big part of the culture there. When I was in my late teens I started working at a fitness center, teaching aerobics and doing personal training. From there I decided I also wanted to help people with their nutrition, the inner health as well as the outer looks. I decided to study to become a nutritionist, and from there I broadened my studies to naturopathy.
I moved to the United States in the late 1990’s. and decided to pursue my Doctorate in Naturopathic Medicine, which I did in Seattle, WA; then moved to San Diego in 2003.
My primary focus is working with people with chronic, complex illness, primarily Lyme disease and mold toxicity; as well as helping kids on the autism spectrum. I love my work because with both Lyme disease and autism, so many people have been discouraged from thinking that there is anything positive they can do about it. Lyme disease in particular is a very politicized illness, so many patients have experienced denial, and even ridicule, from other medical providers.
In my work I offer consultations where we review an individual’s full history, design testing protocols to really try to get to what the underlying cause of their health problems are, not just trying to mask the symptoms. I use nutrition/ dietary modifications, herbal medicine, homeopathy, hormone support, detox strategies and IV nutrient therapy as my main tools to help people regain their health. I will also use pharmaceuticals where necessary, and I am not opposed to that integrative approach, but I rely most heavily on natural remedies.
I think the most important thing for me, and what sets me apart from other health care practitioners, is that I truly listen to, and care about, my patients. In the insurance model in the US, medicine is so rushed, patients don’t feel heard, and don’t get all their concerns addressed. I take the time to hear the whole story, look at the patient as a whole person, don’t judge or criticize, and just LISTEN. As odd as it may sound this is a new concept for many patients who’ve been handed around from one practitioner to the next not finding any answers.
In my practice, the patients are our top priority, and that is a value that is evident in my staff as well.
What’s been the most effective strategy for growing your clientele?
The most effective strategy in growing my clientele has definitely been word-of-mouth, but it didn’t start that way.
In the beginning, I would look for alliances and partnerships – perhaps other practitioners who do something similar or complementary to me, and might be able to refer patients to me. I would also look for ways to get in from of potential patients, and a large part of this was doing talks and lectures at relevant places (for me it was health food stores, and patient support groups).
The next turning point for me was being asked to be interviewed for a chapter in a book that had quite wide circulation. I had met the author at a conference, we had a great rapport, and so when she was writing her book she included me as one of the “experts”. That was a huge boost in terms of getting my name out there, and giving potential patients an opportunity to learn and my philosophy and how I practice.
From there I ended up writing four of my own books relevant to my specialty, which of course was a great help too.
Word-of-mouth referrals are what all practitioners aim for, but it’s hard for that to happen when you are just starting out and don’t have that reputation yet. That is when being creative about how to get in from of people who might refer to you, or get to know your work and become a client, is important.
Can you talk to us about how your funded your firm or practice?
I actually didn’t put capital together to start my practice. When I was working for the previous clinic for those couple of years, I tried to save what I could, but as a new grad with the cost of living in Southern California, it wasn’t a lot!
My strategy for funding my business was very clear – I had to start small and grow organically as my patient base grew. My first office was a 400 square foot sublet. It was cute and cozy, but had only one office and a waiting area. I started carrying a few supplements in my dispensary – practitioner lines that I knew were the highest quality for patients. But I didn’t have a ton of money to spend on inventory, so I kept it small.
I also started out without any employees. If a parcel needed shipping, I went to the post office. I called back potential new patients, I answered all the emails myself. I did the orders and checked the voicemails. Finally about a year in, someone reached out to me and asked if she could intern with me, paid or not, as she was trying to learn more about naturopathic medicine to see if she wanted to go to ND school. So I said, sure, how about starting 10 hours a week unpaid for a month, and if you want to continue I’ll pay you from then on. That’s how I got my first employee, just 10 hours a week! I thought it was such a luxury back then (and back then, it was!). As a fun side note, that person never went to naturopathic school as she has a very busy web design business, but she is one of my closest friends to this day and was a bridesmaid in my wedding!
I know some people take out loans to start their business and I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. For me, I liked building slowly and not going into debt. That was I stayed in my comfort zone and never felt financially overwhelmed.
Today we have a lovely 5-room office with 3 other practitioners and 2 employees, just one block from my old cozy office! I feel nostalgic every time I walk by my old space.
- Website: www.restormedicine.com, www.drnicoladucharme.com
- Instagram: @restormedicine
- Facebook: www.facebook.com/RestorMedicine and www.facebook.com/DrNicolaDucharme
- Youtube: Nicola