Marketing and TCM – What’s the Best Strategy to Retain and Gain Patients?

July 11, 2024

Marketing is generally not popular among Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioners. I believe the reason is that, as practitioners, we would instead focus on helping our patients rather than thinking about promoting our services. Unfortunately, word of mouth may take a long time to bring in new patients, so we must become proactive in generating a consistent flow of new patients. In Australia, the attrition rate is high for Complementary medicine (CM) practitioners (95%). The high attrition rate means that only 5% of all graduates stay in the industry for over five years! In addition, pressure from organisations such as Friends of Science in Medicine that actively campaign against Complementary medicine in writing to universities to stop them from offering degrees and education is impactful.  

As we are primarily practitioners and not skilled in sales, promoting our services to people we don’t know can be tricky, even in the age of social media. The use of social media still divides. In this short article, we will cover two simple strategies for an abundant flow of patients through your door.  

What We Can Do As Practitioners with our Current Patients

The relationship between the patient and the psychologist or psychotherapist is called therapeutic alliance and is considered an essential factor in the outcome of psychological therapy. 

Similarly, when practitioners use musculoskeletal therapies, it’s called patient-therapist interactions, and according to a research report published in May 2016 based on a qualitative systematic review and meta-synthesis, a mix of interpersonal, clinical and organisational factors influence patient-therapists’ interactions. Further research is merited to narrow down those specific factors.  

As TCM practitioners, we are very much physical therapists, as most would predominantly apply acupuncture as physical therapy. However, TCM practitioners also hear about our patients’ emotions, psychological states, and life stresses and challenges. We depend on hearing those details on their mental states as it will assist us in refining our TCM diagnosis and resulting treatment strategy. However, we must also be skilled in communication to accommodate those tricky situations in the treatment room and protect ourselves from being too affected by our patients’ stories.  

How important is the therapeutic alliance or the patient-therapist interaction for TCM practitioners? According to research, the bond or relationship between the practitioner and patient establishes part of the treatment outcomes. The specific factors impacting the outcome are unclear, but we have a general idea of what’s essential to have the best connection, bond or relationship with our patients. The following influences are derived from the research report and reflect my practice.  

Clear Communication Skills, Particularly Active Listening

Active listening involves the patient being able to tell their story, and we practitioners actively listen with all our senses. It means being fully present with the person in the treatment room, letting them know you have understood and providing the space, respect, confidence and warmth for the conversation to unfold.  

Expressing and feeling empathy  

“Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position.” Empathy is not feeling sorry for our patients but expressing our best ability and understanding their feelings. The research showed that a lack of empathy injured the bond between the therapist and the patient.  

Being Friendly Ends in Adopting a Sense of Humour

A friendly word and a smile go a long way. Everyone knows that. So, let’s do it more often and throw in a little humour, where appropriate, and we can conquer people’s hearts. Being friendly and welcoming doesn’t cost anything, and friendliness is often repaid multiple times despite your possible judgment that someone doesn’t deserve it.  

Encouragement and Confidence  

There is nothing like inspiring patients and encouraging them to take their health to the next level. Be mindful to accept and respect where patients and individuals are rather than where you think they should be. A little encouragement will make your patients confident to keep walking the path to health and balance, one step at a time. Patients like their therapists to be convinced practitioners (knowing what they are doing) but be mindful of coming across as overconfident, which may be interpreted as arrogance and is counteractive to a positive relationship.  

Simple and Easy Explanations  

When applying practical skills, patients value a simple explanation of their problem, how we will help them (solving it), and why we recommend treatment methods, herbs, exercise, diet and lifestyle changes. Patients are more likely to be on board if they know the plan. It’s also important to discuss treatment goals. Setting goals will bring expectations to a mutual level.  

Technical Skills and Expertise  

The practitioner and patient must possess the relevant skills for a treatment method. The expertise enhances the patient’s trust in the practitioner and the modality, which helps to develop a solid and positive relationship.  

Individual Patients Require Individual Treatments

A patient receiving tailored treatment methods and plans is more likely to build trust and strength in their practitioner. The TCM framework provides a well-suited body of wisdom to accommodate this need. It’s important to mention to patients that our treatments are fully customised to suit their situation. It’s easy to understand that this will make your patients feel valued and well-catered. 

Time is Worth So Much 

We all know that things take time, and to offer the gift of time is a well-invested moment for our patients and ourselves. So, when someone needs more time, someone else will require less, and it all works out at the end of the day. Give patients time to relax and build confidence and strong relationships with you.  

Flexibility With Appointments and Care  

It’s important to accommodate our patients’ needs, and we aim to do our best. It’s also great to remain flexible (obviously, it must work out for us) and give care sometimes when they don’t have an appointment and need simple advice. Staying connected with your patients outside their appointments will encourage them to build trust and confidence.  

I aim to optimise all those subtle points with my patients every day. However, I am the first to admit that the clinic has ups and downs and is not always performing optimally. This summary is a good reminder for us to develop our bedside manners further to enhance the therapeutic alliance with our patients and impact the outcome of our treatments to the best of our ability.  

What We Can do to Attract New Patients  

I firmly believe that practitioners do an outstanding job for patients they already had contact with and might have come for treatment for some years, if not decades. Often, it’s a little more difficult to put us out there and “advertise” our services to potential patients. I find this particularly difficult, hence the need to work out strategies that work for me. The following suggestions are cost-effective.  

Business cards, Website, Google Profile and a Good Pitch  

If you opt for the minimum, I suggest you at least have business cards with your preferred branding. Don’t forget to carry them wherever you go (even on holidays); potential patients can appear anywhere and anytime. If you can manage, you should have a website; there are still practitioners who don’t want their website. The website proves that you are for real; it tells a little story about who you are, how you work (any areas of particular interest and perhaps why), where you work and how much it will cost.  

A Google profile is handy because, here in Australia, we are not allowed to mention any testimonials from patients. Still, a Google profile is out of our control, and if patients would like to tell others publicly that they had a good experience with you, then a Google profile is the way to go. It also means that you show up on Google Maps, so when patients are looking for a practitioner, they can easily find you.  

I would also encourage you to work on a pitch. A pitch is a conversation about your compelling, clear and pointed vision. It’s not something that comes easily, but if you think of meeting someone in a lift and this person asks you what you do, what do you tell them in a 30-second or shorter time window? “My name is Brigitte. I am a registered Chinese medicine practitioner who talks to people and assists them with finding balance in their lives. Chinese medicine is all about Yin and Yang, and with acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine, we can target a better flow and interaction between Yin and Yang and consequently, people feel better”. This is just an example of a concise pitch. Usually, what happens is that interested patients will ask more questions about what we do, and uninterested individuals might not question you further. Sometimes, the next question will be: “Can you help with headaches/sciatica/sleeplessness/shoulder pain, etc.” This is an excellent opportunity to answer quickly, usually “Yes, let’s talk about it,” and then hand out a card.  

Chats, Talks, Presentations  

When I first moved to Phillip Island, I didn’t know many people, but I joined Toastmasters because I had a tremendous fear of public speaking. Through Toastmasters, I learned how to speak more spontaneously and preparedly. To hone my new skills, I went to every local club in my area that would have me as a speaker and talked about TCM. I would refine the talk according to the audience. This brought a lot of interest to our medicine in my area, and many of those patients are still coming to see me today.  

Blog, Advertorials, eNews and Social Media  

I do believe in the power of educating prospective patients on every aspect of TCM. How does acupuncture work? Why do we use formulas and not just single herbs? What are moxibustion, cupping, Gua sha and Tui Na? What is Qi gong? How do we diagnose, what is the treatment focused on, etc.? There is so much information that we can tap into. Social media is not everyone’s favourite; it’s not mine. I opted for short advertorials (300 words) on, for example, hay fever, and we had a permanent spot in our local newspaper once a month for two years. It also brought in patients who were still reading the newspaper. For more extended musings, I had a blog on the website. These longer articles (800 – 1,500 words) allow us to explain some of the concepts of our medical frameworks, such as the five elements and the Zang Fu system, or dive into detailed information on meridians and channels.  

This information could also be sent out as an eNews to your patients. It could be a short, monthly or bi-monthly communication you sent out. Patients can also forward this information to their peers, family and friends. The shorter, the better, and in the eNews, you can link to your blog posts in case they want to read more. Also, not everyone enjoys reading, so YouTubing is another way to spread love. There are so many options for different communication styles and approaches. Finding a method and a channel that suits you is the best way to start this “marketing” venture.  

Social media deserves its paragraph: Some love it, and some don’t. The fact is that people spend a lot of time on different channels, but the main action is “scrolling”; that’s why I think it’s essential to have lots of eye-catching imagery to draw people’s attention. Posts need to be short and sweet. You might have your favourite platform, so use those to your advantage. I have learned that engagement might only come after consistently posting for six months. You will discover which posts are liked the most or which events attract comments and which don’t. If posts can be personal and reveal something about yourself, they will be more popular. Although we are now trying to process information equal to reading 180 newspapers per day, we are still looking for meaningful exchanges and connections with other humans. I believe there are many ways that we can engage with our followers in an authentic way and, at the same time, educate prospective patients about the benefits of TCM.  

Given that the biomedical system is not always popular with our patients for various reasons, we are in the best position NOW to educate individuals about the “magic” of  TCM. So, I encourage you to tap into one or several channels to promote our medical system far and wide. We know it best, so we can talk about it most.  Feel free to comment on your own experience, insights, and feedback.  






Brigitte Linder
Brigitte Linder was born in Zurich and has lived near Melbourne on the south coast of Australia since 2008. She operated Safflower – Chinese Herbs Expertly Dispensed until mid-2023. Safflower is an herbal dispensary business operating under the banner of the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). It was issued a GMP licence. Acuneeds acquired the company in January 2024 and intended to offer all services to practitioners in Australia and New Zealand.Brigitte completed a master's degree in 2023 with NICM Health Research (Western Sydney University). Her thesis involved creating a case report guideline for Chinese herbal medicine. In 2019, she published her first book and has since mentored TCM graduates to better transition to full-fledged practitioners. She has been consulting patients for 20 years and enjoys working with children and patients with complex conditions. She is a diplomat of the Institute of Classics in East Asian Medicine (ICEAM) and prescribes Eastern Han-era herbal formulas, namely Shang Han Lun and Jin Gui Yao Lue. Brigitte has always been interested in uniting a strong, cohesive TCM community. She continues to invest time and effort to ensure practitioners and the profession receive support and recognition.
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