Twenty years ago I followed my friends to the same pediatrician they used. It took only a few visits with my newborn to realize I had the wrong one. I let him know I was experiencing extreme pain every time I fed her. Maybe she had thrush? He looked in her mouth and at her weight and informed me that she was fine.
My newborn at that point was an extension of me. If feeding her left me in tears, neither of us were fine. That he blew me off was a red flag. I needed a female pediatrician.
At our next appointment with the only woman in that practice, the pediatrician walked in and doubled glanced at her chart. With a warm smile, she introduced herself by her first name. Are you supposed to see me, she asked?
We were in the right place.
Dr. Cathy DiVincenzo is retiring this February, after 24 years in pediatrics. She left that first group practice shortly after we met her to start her own. She wanted to build a pediatric practice that put kids and their families first – one she would have wanted as a partner for her own kids.
Today, Kids First Pediatric Partners is one of the most successful private pediatric practices on Chicago’s Northshore. I’ve been fortunate to support their marketing for over a decade. In that role, I was able to interview Dr. Cathy on her reflections.
Tips for building a successful private practice
I asked Dr. Cathy what made her practice so successful. She was sure it was one strategy that was always central to her mission: putting her patients first.
A lot of what she shared is relevant to anyone wanting to build a practice or improve an existing one. Here are some tips from Dr. Cathy.
Rally your team around a shared mission that matters: Dr. Cathy set out to build a practice with one goal in mind. “I want all families to feel special and well cared for and that we were putting their child first.”
At first she had no plans to share that vision with others, but she soon saw that she couldn’t be the doctor and mom she wanted to be while working all on her own. It wasn’t long before she found team members to share her goal, and she hired those who fit the mission.
Build what you’d want for yourself: All of us are patients at some point, so it shouldn’t be hard to put yourself in the position of those you serve. None of us appreciate long waits, rude receptionists or dismissive doctors. Dr. Cathy says, “Being a mom has impacted the way I feel about pediatrics and the way I feel about the families I take care of. When you become a mom, you're struck by an overwhelming feeling of wanting to do anything for your children. Knowing that enables me to empathize with families, be patient and reassuring.”
If you build it, they will come. There were many times in the past two decades when Kids First had to expand to fit patient needs. This meant hiring a new provider or moving twice to bigger spaces. Growth is scary, but families continued to choose the practice and meet the new demands. “There's a saying in the movie Field of Dreams. ‘If you build it, they will come,’ and that's kind of the evolution of how the practice has grown. Maybe if I had gone to business school instead of medical school, I would have had a business plan and made projections. But for me, what I have always really wanted to do is treat families the way that I wanted to be treated.”
Good service is the best marketing: Looking back, Dr. Cathy had no idea she would build a group practice when she started out in a shared office with a gynecologist. She and the providers who eventually joined are singularly focused on excellent care and service. Families and kids have noticed. It’s not unusual for kids to see their provider and give a hug or proudly deliver a drawing. “Patients like coming to see us at Kids First, and they recommended their friends and coworkers. Our practice continues to attract more families. We had to grow to accommodate that,” she says.
When the industry changes, find ways to adapt that work for you: One of the biggest changes Dr. Cathy has faced in the last two decades is the move from paper files to EMR. There’s more regulation from insurance companies, and much of the burden in medicine now is keeping up with all the documentation.
None of this adds to patient experience, especially in pediatrics where the provider’s rapport with patients is so essential. Kids First uses iPads instead of computers because it’s easier to interact this way. Dr. Cathy either takes short notes and then has to spend time later documenting. Or, she uses a medical scribe so she can fully focus on the children and families.
Twenty years ago, I thought a pediatrician who didn’t prioritize the needs of a parent was an anomaly. Since then, I’ve realized how fortunate our family is to have had the care of Dr. Cathy. As a healthcare writer, I interview countless clinicians and patients for feature articles. I mostly hear inspiring stories. But I also hear about a lot of challenges.
There are patients who raise concerns that are dismissed every day in physicians’ offices. For one of my clients, Feeding Matters, parents often have to advocate for their kids for months before getting a pediatric feeding disorder diagnosis.
And there were pediatric practices affiliated with hospitals that were closed for all sick visits for nearly two years of the pandemic. Ours found a way to safely offer walk-in hours by the summer of 2020.
Dr. Cathy’s success shows that when your goal for your practice aligns with what your patients want, there’s no limit to what you can build.