Be a good doctor. Although the main goal of a business is to generate income, it’s important to remember that it is ultimately a doctor’s office. Patients seek you out for your care. I have colleagues who have practices that see a large number of patients, but it comes at the expense of good quality care. If you ask doctors why they chose this field, most will tell you it’s because they want to take care of people. It can be easy to get swept up in the business side of medicine and focus sometimes too much on profits over patients.
As a part of my interview series with prominent medical professionals about “How To Grow Your Private Practice” I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Cynthia Lazzaro, a board-certified dermatologist, specializing in medical, surgical and cosmetic dermatology. She works in private practice and is a medical director for LaserAway, the nation’s leader in aesthetic dermatology, at their Orange County region. She completed her dermatology residency training at Michigan State University, McLaren Oakland Hospital where she served as chief resident.
Dr. Lazzaro is widely published in peer-reviewed medical journals and has received numerous awards for her research and presentations. She is active as a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology, American Osteopathic College of Dermatology, and American Osteopathic Association. She also proudly serves as a Clinical Assistant Professor of Dermatology at Western University of Health Sciences.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell our readers a bit about your ‘backstory”?
During college, I thought I would become a lawyer, but I graduated and decided to do post-baccalaureate studies in science instead. At the same time, I had an opportunity to shadow a local dermatologist. I immediately fell in love with the specialty. There is an incredible variety of conditions that affect the skin, and the patient population is extremely diverse. One of the most rewarding aspects of dermatology is its possibility to see the results of your care and that’s not possible in many other areas of medical practice.
The skin is also such an important part of who we are — both in terms of our physical health, and our feelings of confidence and wellbeing. Becoming an expert in skin health and treatment really became my passion.
After completing my post-baccalaureate, I went to medical school in Los Angeles and then completed my dermatology residency in Michigan. I joined a private practice where one of the doctors and I had a mutual friend. I became the Orange County medical director of LaserAway through a colleague.
What made you want to start your own practice? Can you tell us the story of how you started it?
I’ve shaped my practice to fit my life. I work essentially full time as a practicing dermatologist — treating a wide range of conditions, from skin cancers to rashes, to growths, to cosmetics, and surgeries. I joined a medical group and eventually became a partial owner after the practice reorganized a few years later.
Managing being a provider and a business owner can often be exhausting. Can you elaborate on how you manage(d) both roles?
I’ve been lucky to find a model where business people can manage the majority of day-to-day things, which allows me to focus more on the medical work. Hiring trustworthy staff has been key to allowing the practice to succeed. Another aspect is doing as much cross-training as possible. For example, training front office staff to do back-office work and vice versa is helpful. If someone calls out sick, the staff can easily transition into covering for someone else.
As a business owner, how do you know when to stop working IN your business (maybe see a full patient load) and shift to working ON your business?
As much as I prefer to focus on the practice of dermatology, I have always been more than willing to jump into the business side and help with marketing, branding, promotions, etc.
I’ve lived in Southern California my entire life other than during college and residency, so I also have a great network of people who I can tap into for advice. I think being a “local” is underrated in our fast-paced, global world — especially because the practice of medicine is really about the people situated in a local community.
From completing your degree to opening a clinic and becoming a business owner, the path was obviously full of many hurdles. Is there a specific hurdle that sticks out to you?
I think it’s important to have transparency when dealing with potential business partners. If they aren’t willing to write it down in a contract, maybe it’s too good to be true. Some people prefer more of a handshake approach to business, but I’ve learned that I prefer to negotiate upfront and have that transparency from day one.
How did you build up resilience to rebound from failures?
It’s important to remember that life is a marathon, not a sprint. Doctors often have long careers that evolve along different pathways, including traditional practices, teaching and academics, research, entrepreneurship, and more. I think keeping that perspective has helped me navigate a few twists and turns early in my career. It’s certainly harder today to set up a traditional practice than it was a generation ago. But in other respects, there are more opportunities for non-traditional paths and innovation.
I also think an important partof a successful career is understanding risk and being honest with yourself about how much risk you want to take on in various areas of your career (and life in general).
What are your “5 Things You Need To Know To Grow Your Private Practice” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Be a good doctor
Although the main goal of a business is to generate income, it’s important to remember that it is ultimately a doctor’s office. Patients seek you out for your care. I have colleagues who have practices that see a large number of patients, but it comes at the expense of good quality care. If you ask doctors why they chose this field, most will tell you it’s because they want to take care of people. It can be easy to get swept up in the business side of medicine and focus sometimes too much on profits over patients.
- 2. Be flexible
A few years ago, there was a horrible bug that took out quite a number of my staff for a few weeks. We ended up having to stagger the staffing and only minimally changed the patient schedule. Since a lot of staff were cross-trained, it was relatively seamless for them to take on different roles.
3. Be kind
I have seen many doctors yell at their staff and belittle them. If you are a difficult person to work with, that can create terrible energy in the office and compromise good care.
4. Be generous
Before COVID, I would regularly buy my staff lunch and coffee. People love to be appreciated and they are so grateful. A lot of my staff have kids and giving them one less meal to plan takes a load off them so they can focus more on their work.
5. Say thank you
My mom taught me how important manners are. People appreciate when you recognize the work they do. I try to incorporate “thank you” into my everyday vocabulary with my staff and patients.
Many healthcare providers struggle with the idea of “monetization”. How did you overcome that mental block?
Honestly, in some respects, I haven’t. I mentioned earlier that I work with a great team of business people. I think that’s key for a doctor who wants to focus on their practice. But at the same time, I have become aware of the revenue and cost side of the business. And of course, part of making money is just producing a great, high-quality product — whether it’s soda or medical care. So I really focus mostly on that.
What do you do when you feel unfocused or overwhelmed?
I have two young children who have forced me to constantly be present for them. It’s terribly cliché, but their innocence and happiness make me remember that life is short and you have to enjoy every moment you can. I also have a very supportive husband who is always reminding me to have fun and relax.
I’m a huge fan of mentorship throughout one’s career — None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Who has been your biggest mentor? What was the most valuable lesson you learned from them?
Hands down, my biggest mentor is Dr. Will Kirby of Laseraway. In medical school training, students will do rotations during their last years. Some rotations are almost like observerships where the student is only allowed on the sidelines to watch what the doctor is doing. Dr. Kirby would actively engage me with each patient and explain basic concepts that most doctors wouldn’t take the time to do. I told him countless times how grateful I was and his only advice was to “pay it forward”. Since meeting him, I have mentored many students and still continue to teach.
What resources did you use (Blogs, webinars, conferences, coaching, etc.) that helped jumpstart you in the beginning of your business? Can you explain why they were helpful?
I like to write letters to refer doctors thanking them for sending patients and updating them with progress notes. Those letters almost guarantee future referrals. Also, I try to let my work quite literally speak for itself. When I am with a patient, I will actively engage them in their diagnosis and treatment plan. Most of my patients never leave without a sample, an educational brochure, or a post-it note where I’ve written something down for them. My patients have told their families or written reviews that generate future referrals.
In interviews like this one, people often ask about the best advice that one was given. I’d like to flip the script. What’s the worst piece of advice or recommendation you’ve ever received? Can you share a story about that? Was there a lesson or take away from that story?
There are a lot of CPAs and lawyers out there who focus on doctors and medical practices. Some of them offer to manage your finances top-to-bottom, but they often want huge fees and other major commitments. There is also a mantra now that every doctor should have a corporation. I think it makes sense for a lot of practices, but it can also add complications that aren’t always beneficial.
Personally, I think it’s best not to overcomplicate things. I’m a fan of the White Coat Investor community, which advocates for simple investment and financial strategies that reduce risk and stress.
Please recommend one book that’s made the biggest impact on you? Can you explain why that resonated so much with you?
Last year I read Michelle Obama’s book, Becoming. The book taught me a lot about the importance of hard work and how becoming successful comes with a lot of struggles along the way.
How can our readers follow you online?
Thank you for these great insights!