Reward your staff well! They are sometimes more important than you are. My office staff is small but we have been together for decades and that loyalty means everything to me. My patients see the practice in a different light when they learn that my front of office has been with me for so long. It speaks volumes about the care they will get from them and from me.
As a part of my interview series with prominent medical professionals about “How To Grow Your Private Practice” I had the pleasure of interviewing Thomas Sterry MD.
Thomas Sterry, MD, is a board-certified New York City plastic surgeon with two decades of experience. At his inviting boutique-style practice in Manhattan, he focuses on each patient’s unique needs and aesthetic goals so that he can provide the most attractive and natural-looking outcomes possible.
Dr. Sterry is a member of both the surgical staff and faculty at Mount Sinai Medical Center, one of the nation’s leading hospitals. He is also the President of the New York State Society of Plastic Surgeons.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell our readers a bit about your ‘backstory”?
I grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood surrounded by craftsmen. My neighborhood was a mix of carpenters, cabinetmakers, and machinist type people. During my childhood, there were always projects to do and I admired the guys who took their time and did things the “right way” rather than making it “good enough for now.”
My inspiration for becoming a doctor was to save lives as a surgeon. Unfortunately, a large issue among many surgeons’ revolves around the concept of time. Getting patients in and out so they can get another one on their operating table. . So I gravitated towards the people who were more interested in perfecting their skills and patient outcomes — like the craftsmen I grew up with. Plastic surgeons typically take their time with their work because at the end of the day, if things don’t look right, that poor work is advertised to the entire public. It was a natural fit for me — I just didn’t know it until I experienced it.
What made you want to start your own practice? Can you tell us the story of how you started it?
I was working at Mount Sinai Hospital for 3 years and had no control over my practice. Not my staff or decisions about what equipment I wanted — I didn’t even have control of my own operating schedule.
I’m in the service business and a patient’s experience is of utmost importance. They need to WANT to come to see me. They don’t HAVE to see me. Me not being in control of my business services was not how I was going to get patients to want to visit my office. I’m now in a position where I get to choose my own team. Everyone from reception to anesthesia is handpicked by me. If I decide I want to buy the latest technology in — whatever — I buy it. I have control over everything having to do with my patient’s experience, and I’m much happier.
Managing being a provider and a business owner can often be exhausting. Can you elaborate on how you manage(d) both roles?
Simple. I work a LOT! Typically 70–80 hours each week. I have learned to delegate a fair amount of responsibility to others, but I still have to oversee everything to some extent. The only thing I have not and will never give up is patient care. I still do every procedure myself and remove all my own sutures. I don’t use a Physician Assistant or Nurse Practitioner because I want to know what’s going on with every patient firsthand.
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?
Well, that has a bit to do with what I was just describing. It’s sometimes hard because I also have a family and I’d like to spend more time with my kids. The pandemic actually allowed me to slow down last spring. As stressful as it was at times, I tried to stop worrying about the bills and one night I actually sat down and watched a movie with my daughter. I can’t remember the last time I did that. Every day she is getting older but the shutdown allowed time to pause in a way I’ve never been able to before and enjoy the simple things.
Now that my office is opened it is back to work, but I cherish the time I had with my wife and children.
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?
Getting up the gumption to make the leap is the hardest part. I was thinking about it for a long time and finally realized I just had to go. At the time, I remember telling a friend that if I was planning a cross-country trip I couldn’t sit in my apartment and wait for all the traffic lights to be green. You’re going to hit some red lights and some traffic along the way. You just have to figure it out when you get to them. That realization was a breakthrough for me.
How did you build up resilience to rebound from failures?
Mostly by failing, taking my lumps, and moving on. I think it’s important to focus on what’s next in life without necessarily forgetting what you’ve been through. Lord knows I’ve had some failures and made some big mistakes in running my business.
What are your “5 Things You Need To Know To Grow Your Private Practice” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- The patient is always right! My patients are my walking advertisements. I want them to be overly happy. I love the consulting phase of the process so I really listen to what they are looking for to try and meet all of their expectations.
- Start at the first rung of the cosmetic ladder! This is a true measurement of the distance you have to go and the best place is to start on the first rung. This is how I measure the distance of my practice goals and the surgical goals during each case.
- Shortcuts are never faster! They sometimes take you places you didn’t want to go so in the end it was not a shortcut. This goes back to my earlier mentors, the craftsman in my neighborhood. I always strive for perfection and there is no cutting corners.
- Reward your staff well! They are sometimes more important than you are. My office staff is small but we have been together for decades and that loyalty means everything to me. My patients see the practice in a different light when they learn that my front of office has been with me for so long. It speaks volumes about the care they will get from them and from me.
- Take Photos. Lots of them!
ealthcare providers struggle with the idea of “monetization”. How did you overcome that mental block?
Yes, it’s true. Doctors really just want to take care of people and sometimes find the reality of the world annoying. Like paying bills. Or getting paid for your work. But in private practice I’ve had no choice, I’ve had to learn to balance both. I’ve got to get paid for my work because at the end of the month the rent is due. For me, I’ve dropped all insurance work because it simply is not in the best financial interest of the practice. It’s happened that months after a procedure they refuse payment — but the surgery is already done. So now, we’ve had to insist on being paid first — BEFORE surgery takes place.
We also have a better handle on what it costs to be in practice. What it costs to breathe the air in my office for an hour would astonish people. From there we have broken down what I need to earn per hour or per patient. We’ve also figured out what it costs in advertising to bring a new patient in. Again, shocking, but very important to understand if you’re going to survive during these times.
What do you do when you feel unfocused or overwhelmed?
Everyone feels that way from time to time.
Generally, I try to go for a good hard run and sweat it out. If that doesn’t help, I try to drop everything for a night and get a good night’s rest. Then wake up early the next morning, prioritize what needs to get done first, and go like hell.
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?
My mentor, Jin Chun was an amazing surgeon who could fix anything. I learned an incredible amount from him during my training and will forever be indebted.
What was the most valuable lesson you learned from them?
- Trust No One:
- See the wound yourself.
- Check the labs yourself.
- Do the operation yourself.
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 started my journey way before blogs or business coaching was so popular. For me it was the patients that jump started my business. I wanted to give them a superior experience in and out of the operating room. The only way I was going to be able to do that was by creating my own practice and running my own business.
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?
Best advice I ever got: Become a doctor.
Worst advice I ever got: Become a doctor.
Growing up I didn’t know anyone that chose medicine as their profession. I was definitely encouraged to become a doctor but also encouraged to do something “normal” like what the men in my neighborhood were trained to do. Ultimately, medicine and science called me and here I am. But the values that I learned from the hard-working neighborhood of my youth still inspire me to be a better surgeon every day.
Please recommend one book that’s made the biggest impact on you? Can you explain why that resonated so much with you?
Winning Through Intimidation is a book from the 1970’s, but the lessons are timeless. The author knows his subject well and he drives his point home with vivid examples. A casual reader might be fooled into thinking it’s a book about Real Estate, but it’s not. It’s a book about life in the real world.
There are several lessons in the book, but the title refers to the fact that there are people and forces in the world who will try to convince you not to embark on a new career challenge. To just be complacent with whatever you’ve got. They “win” because they scare you out of trying something with all their rhetoric of failure. And like Wayne Gretsky said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take”.
How can our readers follow you online?
They can visit my website at www.drsterry.com or on Instagram at @DrSterry