This week on the Evolution of Medicine podcast, we continue our “Success Leaves Clues” series. Each week we will be interviewing doctors who are building the practices of the future and learning from their strategies that can make it easier for you to build your practice no matter where you are in the world.
We welcome Dr. Sonza Curtis as part of our Success Leaves Clues. Dr. Curtis graduated from the University of Nebraska Medical Center, with a Masters of Science in Physician Assistant Studies. She then went on to complete her Doctorate of Naturopathy for Health Care Professionals. In 2014, Dr. Curtis became one of only three Georgia doctors Certified in Functional Medicine.
Announcer: Welcome to The Evolution of Medicine podcast, the place health professionals come to hear from innovators and agitators leading the charge. We cover the latest clinical breakthroughs in health technology, as well as practical tools to help transform your practice and the health of your community. Now here’s your host, James Maskell.
James Maskell: Hello and welcome to the podcast. This week, we feature Dr. Sonza Curtis as part of our Success Leaves Clues. In this podcast, you’re going to hear about her journey from being a physicians assistant through naturopathic medicine and finally to functional medicine, and what’s so exciting about this podcast is there’s tons of value for anyone who’s looking to take the first step on the journey towards building successful practice.
So much great stuff here in how to build a low overhead practice, some of the technology that she’s learned how to use through the Evolution of Medicine Practice Accelerator, how to keep a low overhead practice, how to build a connection with local integrative providers that now pay her rent, and just so many other ways in which Sonza has built such an amazing practice. I think there’s value in here, no matter what kind of practitioner you are, and I really hope you’ll enjoy it. This is part of our Success Leaves Clues podcast series, enjoy.
James Maskell: So, a warm welcome to the podcast, Dr. Sonza Curtis. Welcome doc.
Sonza Curtis: Welcome, James. Thank you. Thank you for having me.
James Maskell: It’s such a pleasure to have you here on the podcast. We’re continuing our series called “Success Leaves Clues”. Yeah, really excited to connect with you. Obviously a lot of people in the integrative/ functional medicine space, most of the practitioners that we’ve met and have some sort of reason that got them there. So, maybe let’s just start with that. Tell us a little bit about your story. I know it goes through different schooling. What was the genesis of your desire to be first a Physician’s Assistant and now functional medicine?
Sonza Curtis: Well, it started … Interesting, it started back as a child. My grandmother was on tons of medication and I would always remember, she would have a shoe box full of medications, prescription medications and before she died she ended up with two shoe boxes of medication. And I’m like, “There has to be a better way.” So, that was when I first decided I wanted to go into medicine, to kind of figure out what was going on. Then, … I started my Physician Assistant journey. I was practicing in there for a short period of time and my father died of a massive heart attack. Genetically, … I have his genetics. So, at that point I decided … I was already making life style changes but I was still on a quest.
Then, I decided to go ahead and pursue as a Naturopath. Then I had a preceptor that had gone through the five day AFMCP. This was before even the certification process was an issue, before it came to play. I asked her because she was also an Andrew Weil grad, and I asked her what route she would go. She pointed me to the direction of IFM instead of the Andrew Weil – a well respected pioneer, integrative medicine in Atlanta, Christine Gustafson. I started with her in 2006. I’ve been with the practice, because she passed in 2012. Dr. Betsy Board bought the practice and I’ve been with them, as well as, started my own practice two and a half years ago.
James Maskell: Absolutely, that’s great. It’s amazing to get an opportunity to get the mentorship and learn from other doctors go along. We’ve certainly seen that that can be a real benefit to work in another practice. You’ve been working in that practice now for a number of years. Actually, before we get into the practice details … Obviously you found IFM training and that was more than 10 years ago, and now you’ve gone through the whole certification. For practitioners who are out there who are looking at it and looking at the value of it the price tag of it, otherwise, can you just share some of your experience with going through that program and what it’s meant to you clinically and also how you feel about it now?
Sonza Curtis: That was the best investment I could have ever made. It made me a better clinician. I truly felt like I had found my tribe of people. I’ve always been the odd person out, but with IFM I’ve truly found like-minded people, that look at you weird. Not only that, the education is priceless. You can’t put a price tag on the education you get from the IFM, and the support.
James: Awesome. Yeah, if you’re listening to this, check out goevomed.com/ifm and you can find out more about the certification. We’re very proud to be partnered with them and having them as our clinical. Recommendation … one of them we recommend for physicians and glad to hear you say that. Now you’ve decided … You’re working in this practice, you’re working with another doctor, who’s also trained in IFM. One other question I want to ask you, one of the things that I see with the IFM as opposed to integrated medicine, and let’s say naturopathic medicine, is that with the … With this standard operating system of the matrix, it really allows better communication between physicians. Have you found that with just speaking with Dr. Board? It seems like having a common language really helps to speed up the conversation and the strategy when coordinated with different patients. Have you found that?
Sonza Curtis: I found that to be key, because again, it’s like the blueprint. She goes through the matrix in a timeline and you start with the gut and usually our hallway consultation. It’s quick. It’s not … I have to sit down and explain everything to her because she knows where I’m going before I even get there. Then, we help, we bounce ideas off of each other and it’s wonderful being in a practice with her.
James Maskell: Lovely, alright, great. So, now you want to start your own practice on the side, you have the experience of being in this big practice. Maybe you can give me an example of some ideas of what was some of the fears that you had moving into your own practice and what were some of the things that you want to do differently from the practice that you’ve had?
Sonza Curtis: Well, interesting, I practiced consulting for DC, MD, and primary, so I kind of had an idea of some of the financial loads, or the hurdles. However, it’s always easy spending somebody else’s money until you have to spend your own.
James Maskell: Yep.
Sonza Curtis: So, to just put my name on a lease was scary within itself. But I did it. I had a friend that believed in me and she gave me $13,000 to start the practice and it’s been great ever since. I wouldn’t look back because I wanted to move in a more community … I’m very community minded. I was also on the advisory board for one of the homeless shelters here in Atlanta. I worked in the community with my church, so I’d do a lot of health fairs. I was doing a lot of corporate wellness. I’m just a community buff. I kind of want to be in the office but then also be outside the office. So that’s what my office has allowed me to do and do group visits and to kind of make function like this a little bit more affordable, because one of the things that Atlanta function medicine – I’d sit back and look at it like I can’t afford to see myself but I want people to see the value and that health is and investments.
James Maskell: Yeah, that’s really interesting. So when you set out on your own course I love the community aspect, I love the group visit aspect, I think it’s really well set up for those populations and it’s exciting to see. You came in to the Practice Accelerator. What were some of the favorite technologies that you started to on board in this lower overhead model that you have in your own practice?
Sonza Curtis: Well, the Practice Accelerator really helped me with just “What are you looking for on your website?” What are the … and I’m still working through that. Now what are the lead magnets? I didn’t know what a lead magnet was before I joined the Practice Accelerator. Automation, and the key of information. How to market on Facebook. How to do an Eventbrite. I knew all the other stuff, but I didn’t know the marketing aspect. Marketing was basic, marketing has changed. Everybody’s on social marketing. They’re not doing the ads in a magazine. I tried that, and nothing happened.
James Maskell: Yeah.
Sonza Curtis: So, I was looking for help and the Evolution of Medicine has helped. The other thing was the group. I think I took away, when we did the accountability group. That was another priceless experience. Nicole was very innovative. Whenever you felt like you didn’t want to show up, we’d show up anyway and we found out that we always completed something that we didn’t think that’s not there. And everybody else is struggling with the same thing. So it’s not that you’re out there by yourself.
James Maskell: Yeah, let’s talk a little bit about that, ’cause I know you’re part of the group that’s really, one of the group’s that’s had serious longevity since we did the pilot, I think back in May or June. You’re in a group and now that group continues, and continues without Nicole’s involvement every week. So Nicole works for us at the Evolution of Medicine, she’s the one who’s instigated and pioneered these accountability groups for practitioners, really to help practitioners get into a habit of implementing new things for their business and working on the business and not just in the business as the clinician, but getting on with it.
So maybe you could just share your experience of the early days there, and sort of realizing that everyone had the same struggles, you weren’t smarter or dumber than anyone else when it comes to this, just what it comes to, what it means to be able to switch from a employee mindset, where you were in the other practice, where you’re spending other people’s money, to now somewhere it’s your own money and being able to really think about what that looks like. Do you have recollection or feeling about that?
Sonza Curtis: I remember our first group, I was terrified for video’s within itself. Nicole made you feel very warm, and the group I was in was, again, same situation, like-minded professionals that were having the same struggles. I remember our first assignment, we had to do a video, and it took me 95 minutes to record the video. When I struggled with it and Nicole did not make me feel bad, and it was great getting feedback from the other practitioners because they’ve gone through it, and sometimes they would observe and give feedback, and I still was having struggles, and Nicole said “Take it out of the office, do it outside, do it somewhere you feel comfortable” and that made a world of difference, just making those small little adjustments. Sometimes we laugh about it in the group now, we still had to meet every week even after the pilot, and Nicole, interesting, joined us last week, she did a surprise visit, so that was exciting.
James Maskell: Yeah, that’s really cool. I’d love to ask you, I did this process myself a few months ago with other entrepreneurs, not related to functional medicine and one of the things that I found that was really interesting, I’ve had a coach before too. I found that I was almost more accountable to this group of strangers where we created an agreement amongst the group, than I would be even if I had a coach. I’ve had a coach before, and I found that it was really easy to have the coach buy in to my story about why I couldn’t do what I said that I would do, whereas with the group just during the week, I felt a moral compulsion to just do what I said that I was gonna do, and it definitely helped me to get a lot more things done than I would’ve done had I not had that. I just wondered if that echoed any of your own experience?
Sonza Curtis: Oh yes, because if it was Tuesday morning and I hadn’t completed my task, you’re running around Tuesday trying to make sure you complete it and don’t let the group down, and again you didn’t want to show up empty-handed to the call. But the value, again, is priceless, because you had the same like-minded people. If you had a bad week, it was kind of interesting, because the energy was the same. If I had a bad week, everybody had a bad week, and we just, if nothing else had to encourage each other to get back on the horse and ride again, and we’ll meet next week. It was no shoulds done. That was the thing, we don’t should on anybody, so I thought that was pretty good.
James Maskell: Yeah, beautiful. So one of the things you mentioned earlier was you have your lead magnet now and your automation. What’s it like when you work with patients now that come into your practice now, as opposed to the other practice, do you notice a difference in the interaction that you have when you have a well established education process that happens before the appointment?
Sonza Curtis: Yes, and I also offered a free 15 minute consult for those patients just to see if we’re free. If it’s a good fit. So the other practice, a patient comes in, and I’m looking at the patient and I’m like this is not a good fit, but when you’re working for somebody else you have to complete the process, whereas if it’s your own, if you know it’s a lead magnet, this is a person that’s hand picked and it’s the right person for my practice. You have two people that’s doing the same thing, but from the personality point of view, I’m that personality that they’re looking for. It’s been wonderful.
James Maskell: Yeah that’s great. Well that’s what you want, you want to work with people that are ready to do it and deliver it, and it sounds like, I know you have plans to build more of a community, you said group visits. It’s just an easier step to be able to have all of that automated education in place, and then you can send people into a free 15 minute call to see if they’re gonna become a full paid patient, or an option towards a group visit as well. So the same infrastructure is being used in both situations, but then you can offer different services and it just makes it so much easier to be able to come up with new services because a lot of the experience is already baked into the system.
Sonza Curtis: Correct. You know what else, James, that through the Evolution of Medicine Functional Forum, I was interesting, because I tried to start, there’s another practitioner that has one in the city, Dr. Ellie Campbell, who has been great, but you know Atlanta and the traffic can be hideous, trying to get down 400, 285, just to get to the Amen clinic. So I tried, tried to start one in North Atlanta, and it took a while, it took a minute. However I did some tweaking, and we combined Functional Forum with some functional case presentation, so that has been fabulous with just bringing together like-minded people in the community in the north side of Atlanta.
James Maskell: I’m so glad you said that, and I really want to go deeper into that because ultimately, it was always our intention for these groups to, first of all, for there to be more than one per city. I do know that traffic very well, those of you who know me well know that I have a 770 area code on my phone ’cause I used to live in Atlanta when I first moved to America, just north of Atlanta, so I know that very well, and there’s a lot of cities in America now where one per city is not gonna cut it. I’m certainly glad to stick through those first few weeks and months, when it’s, you’re just getting started, getting it off the ground.
Then the biggest thing that you said there, that I’m super excited by, is just that it’s evolved, right? At the beginning, it was just about getting enough people in a room together, you could just stick on the show and watch it and have a discussion, but what we’re seeing with the most advanced groups, or just the most experienced groups that have been doing it a long time, over time you just start to ask the group what do you want out of this? And the functional case presentations is exactly the kind of evolution that we were hoping for, because ultimately, we don’t want to, we want the groups to work out for themselves what they value.
It’s interesting what we’ve seen over time is that most groups really want to be together to learn from each other, rather than always on the TV, and that’s fine, that’s just what we’ve found. So it sounds like your experience has been consistent with that. How many months would you say it took you to get to a point where you had a consistent group coming together?
Sonza Curtis: It’s interesting, ’cause when we first tried, it was like pulling some … It was very labor intensive just to get people out. Then once we finally flipped the mindset of it was more case presentation, I started it here in my office in May of this year, and I thought okay, we’ll be five or six people get together, they’ll come here, not a big deal. Well the buzz was out in the community and I end up with 19 people in my office.
James Maskell: Wow, just one short of the free box of wine!
Sonza Curtis: Yes. So that was crazy, and I looked at my staff and I said … At the time I had a young lady who was just volunteering in the office, and I looked at her and I said we can’t hold it here, my office isn’t big enough. So then we moved to, upstairs I just built a, it’s like a live work community in north Atlanta, it’s called the Avalon, so then we moved upstairs in the Avalon, and now I have reps that are paying for dinner when they come. I have reps fighting for spots to host the meeting.
James Maskell: That’s amazing. Again, part of the vision, that’s why we never had supplemental labs on the Functional Forum, ’cause we knew that they would fight over those people. I was a sales rep for seven years, so I know how valuable it is to get a group of practitioners in a room, especially if someone else is organizing it. Yeah, that’s very exciting to hear, because that is literally happening all over the country and all over the world because now these communities are forming, and you start to see that the value of the meet-up force predominantly on the person that organizes it, and then there’s value to everyone in there, so I’m so glad you stuck with it. Have you met good people through that, who have ended up being referral partners, or other people that you can, that you like, that you want to work with in the future?
Sonza Curtis: Yeah, so it’s actually, compound pharmacists, other referring practitioners, whether it’s health coach, life coach. It’s interesting, when you all get together and the knowledge that’s in the room is like “wow.” I mean it was like magic, I couldn’t believe it. All the knowledge that’s in that room. I learned, every time I go, I come back and I learn so much. Then you begin to figure out, I don’t need to know everything. I know that there’s a functional medicine pediatrician in Atlanta. I’ve met with that person, I have no problem referring my patients to that person ’cause I know that they’re gonna take care of that. I think functional medicine for a lot of people is kind of used loosely, so everybody that says they’re doing functional medicine isn’t really doing functional medicine.
James Maskell: Yeah, I hear that too, and I think particularly next year with the Cleveland Clinic data comes out, where they’re using the IFM operating system, there may be a moment in the sand where there’s a real understanding of what the Cleveland Clinic functional medicine looks like and what other functional medicine looks like, but that’s part of the evolution of what functional medicine going from something weird to something cool, and something that people want, that patients want, that health systems want. We’re starting to see that evolution too.
So let’s, I just want to talk about the low-overhead nature, you mentioned that you had someone who’s now working with you. Can you just talk about your space and staffing, what’s been the evolution of that, how did you decide what space to get, how did you decide what staff to get, and at what point did you hire someone to be on your team, and how’s that process looked?
Sonza Curtis: Well it’s interesting when I first started, my space was about 1100 square feet, it’s not a big space. I was everything, I was the front desk, check-in, check-out, with my PA and my nursing background I was a flabatomist. I saw the patient, I was the accountant, I was the janitor. I was everything. So I did that for about a year, year and a half. One of my old patients that was at Atlanta Functional Medicine, she had a business where she helped small business, women and small business, so I said I’m going to give here a call and see what she’s doing nowadays. So interesting, she had just completed her Reiki certification, and her aromatherapy, so she was a certified aromatherapist, and she was working on her certification, she just had to take the test.
We came in and we bartered services. So she came from a corporate, she had our own business, plus she’d run multi million dollar businesses, so she came in and we bartered services, she got me up on the straight and narrow on the business side. Then she went back to get her reflexology, and now she’s leasing space from me and she’s seeing her own patients. Then we had a physical therapist that does myofacial release and pelvic floor, and she was being displaced, and she came and she wanted to lease space.
So now I have, basically my rent is covered by the two people that I have renting the room. Don’t really have employees, but they’re like-minded people, and we get together, we have a monthly meeting. I just hired my front desk person that’s working part-time. That’s maybe less than a month ago. So we’re evolving to that. I tell you, I didn’t have a whole bunch of overhead. Because right now, my rent is covered. Only thing I have to do is cover my employee and everything else.
James Maskell: Yeah, so interesting, I’ve said forever that the doctor, ND, MD, PA, or that primary kind of physician or provider has a great opportunity to be able to acknowledge the value of the integrated providers because ultimately the integrated providers want the credibility of working with a doctor, and so I love that story to go to zero overhead because now they pay your rent and you get to coordinate everything in the middle and do your practice, and that’s the ultimate micro practice.
So now you’ve got your first assistant person there who can help to take, what were some of the first tasks that she took off your hands there at the practice?
Sonza Curtis: Oh my god, just answering the phones and talking to patients. Because when you’re the phone and the patient calls, and you’re answering the phone, then it’s not “Can I schedule an appointment?” They want to tell you everything that’s going on with them. So then you end up giving away free advice over the phone. So now she can say “Hey, can I schedule you an appointment?” So it’s also increased revenue with her being at the front, because if I’m seeing a patient, I’m missing phone calls.
So it’s at a point in my practice where in order for me to grow, and that’s where I wasn’t doing some things in the Accelerator, ’cause in order for me to grow, I had to hire somebody to pick up the day to day tasks so I can focus more on the practice and seeing patients.
James Maskell: Absolutely, but you’d already built your lead generation systems, and now you had your rent covered, so there’s a little more capital to use on … Ultimately staffing is likely to be everyone’s highest cost in practice, right? If you’re in a regular practice where you have to have 2.5 people for every clinician to be able to bill the insurance, you can see that starts to cost a lot. The whole point of this model is to have a low cost model, low overhead model so that you can build, and you give yourself the maximum chance of not overspending on the overhead, which is great.
So that’s, on the personnel side it’s sounds like that’s a textbook evolution that you’ve gone through there. What about on the technology side? I know, I think I’ve walked into Dr. Board’s practice back in the day when I lived in Atlanta, and I know they’ve got a pretty big supplement store. Did you decide to that in the new practice? Or did you come up with something else?
Sonza Curtis: No I actually, one of the issues with, we’re working Atlanta Functional Medicine, if it’s on the shelf and the patient isn’t aware of what the supplement, the purpose of the supplement, it’s not gonna fly off the shelf. The practitioner has to sell. So occasionally we would have a lot of inventory that expired. So I decided at that point I didn’t have the space nor did I have the financial resources to make that happen. So I went Fullscript. It’s easy. In the Fullscript prescription, in the note section I write all my notes on there so it’s all in one place, and I give it to the patient so that I actually use that for my plan for the patient, so it’s just easy, they email the patient when it’s time for a refill .
The revenue that it generates when you don’t have to do anything is, I go to email, this much was deposited into your checking account and I’m like “Oh, that’s nice” and you haven’t even seen that patient in a couple of months. But with the Atlanta Functional you had to constantly, the patient had to come in, and now we’re even transitioning to using more of Fullscript in Atlanta Functional as well.
James Maskell: Awesome. Yeah I love that, well it’s a great story, this has actually been an amazing half an hour in my life because obviously in the Accelerator, and in the evolution of medicine generally, with what we’ve done, we made the content, we made the meet-up groups, we made the Accelerator, all solving the needs of the practitioners in our community, literally I’ve just sat hear and listened to you that you followed the pattern, executed it perfectly, even the Accountability Group.
I guess I just want to share my deep appreciation for following through with everything and getting it done, because I know that it’s the hardest for the first people. The first people have it the hardest because it’s all new and you’re just working out the systems, and ultimately I would love every clinician who dreams of having their own practice but just can’t see a way to do it to listen to this and be like “Look, it’s not that hard”, you just have to start with the end in mind, and you have to start slow, and you have to start with the minimal overhead, and this is really a textbook example of what’s possible when you just follow that.
So, thank you for following through, thank you for being such a part of the community, also for the support in the Facebook group in the Accelerator. You’ve been part of that for over a year, and you can see just how much energy and enthusiasm is arriving as these new doctors come in and see what the old guard have done. It’s inspiring.
Sonza Curtis: Yes, well thank you James, and like I said, I didn’t, when I went through the Accelerator the first time, I listened to it, and then it took me a couple of times. So once you join the Accelerator, you have all the information in front of you, you can go through it at your own pace, you can go through it again. I would strongly advise you to go through it when the next session starts. Every time I do it I get something out of it.
James Maskell: Beautiful. I love that, and I’m excited and it’s evolving in it’s own way too. You can see the accountability groups that we came up with earlier this year were just based off a fact that we found that all the people were having trouble with implementing in their time, and we didn’t want to make it a $100,000 program where you have your own dedicated coach, and just saw the opportunity to use the power of the group to deliver accountability. It’s on brand with our community message, with the idea of group visits, with the way that we recommend to educate in groups, so we’ve just been thrilled to see so many of the groups really make so much great progress.
Yeah, this has been very heartwarming. Thank you so much for your participation, being part of the community. If you’re listening to this and this is the first time you’ve heard of some of these ideas, Fullscript has been a partner for us for almost three years now that we’ve been recommending full script. You can go to goevomed.com/fullscript. That’s the place to set up the account. If you also can go to goevomed.com/brochure, you can download the brochure for the Accelerator and we will be taking new members in January, but feel free to get in touch with us, and we can start that conversation.
This has been another episode of “Success Leaves Clues” it’s a system, it’s a series of podcasts that we put together to just document the micro-practice revolution. It’s happening. This is happening in states all across America, and all over the world. We’ve had Chiropractors, Naturopaths, Physicians, they’ve been in Utah, they’ve been in Wisconsin, they’ve been in Georgia. This is happening all around the country, and it’s just when practitioners decide that they want to go in this direction we’re there to support them.
Thanks so much for listening, this has been Dr. Sonza Curtis, she’s a Naturopathic Doctor, Physician’s Assistant, and Functional Medicine provider in Georgia. You can find out more about her practice online. In the meantime, thanks so much for listening. I’ve been your host James Maskell, and we’ll see you next time.