By Steve LaBate
Why forward-thinking chiropractors are embracing collaboration over competition.
Most of us have heard it before: Chiropractors eat their own. Whether they’re battling for market share or getting hung up on philosophical disagreements, traditionally collaboration and consensus have not been the strong suit of DCs.
“It’s been a struggle in the profession,” admits Gerry Clum, D.C., former president of Life Chiropractic College West. “We have been so renegade-oriented, so rugged-individualist-oriented, and those aren’t people who line up, who [intuitively] work together in groups.”
This go-it-alone attitude is an issue Clum has had to confront repeatedly in his career. During his tenure as president of the Association of Chiropractic Colleges, he noticed that member schools all had similar needs—from liability and malpractice insurance to photocopy paper. In an attempt to streamline the association’s day-to-day operations, he tried to rally them to join forces and leverage their collective buying power with the ultimate goal of bringing down costs. Seems like a no-brainer, right? “I couldn’t even get my colleagues to agree on that,” Clum says.
Life West graduate Matt Hubbard, D.C., had similar experiences while practicing in San Diego. “You’d go to a health fair,” he says, “and there’d be 20 chiropractors with their own [separate] booths, screaming.” The discord was part of what inspired Hubbard to start the networking group C.O.R.E.—Chiropractors On the Road to Excellence—back in the early 2000s. The organization hinged on his belief that the best DCs always lift each other up, sharing knowledge and resources and generating awareness through camaraderie. “Ten years later,” he says, “I’ve built a brand around people coming together.”
Hubbard likens the teamwork at C.O.R.E. to having a workout partner or personal trainer at the gym. “I know they’re not going to let me off the hook,” he says. “You get to work out your thoughts and ideas, you see what hasn’t worked, what’s working, and it just gives you this sense of accountability that you’re going to be a better chiropractor the next day.”
In today’s hyper-connected, social media world, trading information and ideas has never been easier. According to Clum, though, there was a time when collaboration was a bad word in Chiropractic. “It’s always seemed kind of silly to me that we were in that kind of environment—that it was a zero-sum game,” he says. “That for me to win, you’ve got to lose, and vice-versa. I really never saw it that way. I thought there was plenty of opportunity for all of us to grow and prosper.”
When William P. McDonald, D.C., asked Clum to contribute to “Chiropractic Peace”—a book devoted to achieving peace in the profession—he was eager to share his thoughts with a wider audience. The two first met when McDonald authored a study on attitudes among chiropractors, and was invited to participate in a World Federation of Chiropractic identity consultation process where Clum was co-chair. Other conferees included future “Chiropractic Peace” contributors Ashley Cleveland, D.C., and Reed Phillips, D.C., Ph.D. Out of the budding friendships—and divergent ideologies—of these four DCs came McDonald’s idea for “Chiropractic Peace.” He tasked Clum, Cleveland and Phillips each with writing a structured essay on a series of areas in Chiropractic. Phillips would represent a broad-scope perspective (blending outside disciplines like acupuncture and nutrition with Chiropractic), Clum a spine-centric narrow-scope perspective and Cleveland the middle of the road.
The resulting book provided a forum where chiropractors with disparate views could have logical discourse without a great deal of emotion or anger. After all the essays were written, compared and contrasted, editor McDonald concluded that the differences between DCs were more perceived than real, more language than substance.
“That doesn’t dismiss the differences,” Clum says, “but they aren’t as significant as some people would like to believe. The reality is that we are all chiropractors—we all have a fundamental orientation about the body’s ability to heal—we may diverge on methods, interpretations and political strategies, but there are some core elements we very much share in common. We should build on those rather than attack each other over the differences.”
Recognizing and nurturing those common core elements can help bring peace within the profession while also helping individual practitioners succeed. For example, Hubbard credits a large part of his success in chiropractic to C.O.R.E. and the relationships that have developed as a result. The members of his group, he says, have become some of his closest friends. Every month, they get together for dinner, uncork a few bottles of wine and, before long, everyone is deep into conversation about what’s going on in their lives and practices, and—most importantly—about their journey as DCs.
“It’s become this safe haven for chiropractors who may be struggling in practice to come around and feel the love,” Hubbard says. “You may get beat up all week, but then you come here and you’ll feel refreshed. You can take something tangible from it. The thing I love best about it is the fellowship.”
It’s been such a positive experience for Hubbard that he even began inviting his patients to C.O.R.E. Nine of them, he enthusiastically reports, have gone on to become chiropractors themselves. The most recent convert was so intrigued that he began volunteering to work the bar at C.O.R.E. events. “Here he was, just a patient of mine who got excited about Chiropractic,” Hubbard says. “I invited him, and now he’s there at every meeting and he’s pumped. He’s already getting to hear some of the best speakers around, and he’ll be starting chiropractic college in June.”
But C.O.R.E. doesn’t just begin and end with its monthly meetings. There are many ways in which it fosters community and collaboration. When San Diego was plagued by wildfires recently, Hubbard called on the inner circle of C.O.R.E. and within hours had 20 DCs out in the field adjusting and serving thousands of firefighters. The organization prides itself on helping those in need.
Hubbard recalls a time when one of his fellow members injured himself at the gym. “I made a few phone calls, and we had chiropractors stepping in for free and covering his practice for four or five days until he was able to work again. It’s refreshing to see we’ve got each others’ backs, and that we all have one mission—to serve our communities on the biggest level possible. To do that, though, we’ve got to serve each other first.”
In keeping with this spirit, the members of C.O.R.E.’s San Diego group have begun opening their practices to one another, choosing a new doctor to shadow each month. “You can’t walk into [another doctor’s] office and not learn something,” Hubbard says. “It could be one pamphlet, one thing you see on the wall. It just keeps you on your A-game.”
Clum is reminded of a maxim of Life University founder Dr. Sid E. Williams: No one of us is as smart as all of us. “To have somebody at your elbow who can help you and give you a fresh perspective,” Clum says, “somebody who’ll look at a patient [with] you and vice versa—when I came up in Chiropractic, nobody did that. You had your patients, and I had mine and never the twain shall meet. And that was a very unproductive scenario.”
Nowadays, creative approaches to chiropractic collaboration not only include the exchange of ideas and opinions, but also the sharing of physical facilities. For example, there aren’t many DCs for whom it makes sense to run an X-ray machine 24-7. But if you put three or four doctors together in an office sharing not only that machine, but computers, record-keeping and phone systems as well as real estate, the result is a tremendous savings in overhead that creates more streamlined, successful practices with stronger returns on investment. “The sheer economics of the moment requires that people get leaner and meaner in those areas,” says Clum. “You can bring in a billing specialist that maybe one office can’t afford but that a consortium can handle, no problem.”
That is to say nothing of the vast improvements in quality of life that come with this kind of partnership. “When you’re in a single-doc office, you’re lucky if you get a week off every five years,” says Clum. “But if you’ve got six people working in an office, there’s a way to do this where every one of us gets two months off, and that’s not a bad thing.”
In just about every way imaginable, the collaboration Hubbard and Clum celebrate through C.O.R.E. and “Chiropractic Peace” is a plus—it elevates the competency of the individual, which in turn elevates the entire profession.
“I don’t see a level where the collaborative model doesn’t work,” Clum says. “It works economically, it works for the patient, it works for the staff, it works for the practitioner, [it works for the profession]. Our biggest challenge is finding out how to play together in the sandbox. Other disciplines have had collaborative orientations and activities for centuries. We’ve been slow to the game, but it’s here, and we need to learn more and figure out how to make this work. I think it has the potential to make practice more fulfilling, more profitable and the care rendered more productive. You can’t lose with that formula.”