Feature

What if you could take your child in to talk to a therapist about his math class struggles, and at the same time consult with someone about your retirement account? Or get help for your anxiety and depression by working with a psychologist, then meet with someone who could help you find your dream job, all under one roof?

That's the goal behind a new practice model developed by psychologist Brian Sullivan, PsyD, owner and manager of Lifeworks, LLC, an interdisciplinary suite of mental health and wellness providers and financial advisers who work together to coordinate client care.

Today, this busy Mount Pleasant, S.C., office houses Sullivan and three licensed counselors of various concentrations, as well as a psychiatrist, a life coach, a family law attorney and a certified financial planner. He's also recruiting a nutritionist to join the practice and has even been approached about opening a franchise office near Hilton Head, S.C.

Launching this type of organization just made sense, he says.

"To me, it's a very practical approach to providing great client service," says Sullivan. "I can't do it all, and I don't want to try and do it all, so let's put people up and down the hall that can provide a broader array of services than I can by myself."

Establishing this type of cooperative practice model can take years, says David Ballard, PsyD, MBA, assistant executive director of corporate relations and business strategy in APA's Practice Directorate. But by looking beyond the status quo when establishing a private practice, psychologists can meet emerging needs in a whole new way, he says.

"Brian is building his practice by identifying and meeting community needs, rather than trying to fit those needs into a preexisting model," says Ballard.

Minimize redundancies, maximize service

Sullivan, a clinical psychologist who specializes in assessing adult attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, has never been one to settle for the status quo. He thrives on big ideas, something that colleagues at Lifeworks know all too well.

"My co-workers say they can tell when I've had my coffee based on the length of my e-mails," jokes Sullivan. For example, when he sends one that's particularly long and full of fanciful ideas on how to expand the practice, they know to "ride it out until the caffeine high passes," when Sullivan scales his enthusiasm back to something more reasonable, he says.

But every so often, one project hits it big, as was the case in 2005 when he had the opportunity to purchase and develop his own office space. Rather than setting up a traditional group practice where several mental health providers often compete for the same clientele, Sullivan set about establishing an interdisciplinary office that minimized redundancies among specializations and increased efficiencies--such as clients filling out the same paperwork for every specialist they meet with--in an effort to help clients feel better faster.

But that's not to say it was easy. Since Sullivan made the switch from solo practitioner, with four walls and a phone line, to his more high-tech collaborative practice model, his costs have gone up, and his take-home pay down, he says. But he never expected to generate a profit this early on, he adds. Instead, he set out to test the Lifeworks concept with other mental health and wellness professionals, and with the community.

If the model sticks--as it has so far--Sullivan says the financial benefit will come, and opportunities will develop to expand the practice to new locations. The secret to his success lies in making connections with talented and creative people who are also innovators, and have experience in areas he knows little about, he says. Through a former colleague, Sullivan identified a practice consulting group to help him make his vision for Lifeworks a reality. The group helped him locate, build and decorate the office and even hired his first office manager, he says.

In addition, Sullivan hired consultants to build an information technology network, install wireless Internet access and develop the organization's Web site, complete with downloadable forms for clients to fill out before they arrive for their first appointments. It all makes for a very "just-add-water" practice opportunity for his partners, he says, and it took only a few months to establish.

"Outsourcing was by far one of the smartest decisions I ever made," Sullivan says. "Experts can do in one hour what would probably take me four or five hours to do, if I even knew how to do it."

With the office established, Sullivan set out to recruit tenant collaborators. The premium office space and other overhead costs--including an office manager to schedule appointments and process payments, a dedicated marketing budget and a paperless technology setup--proved prohibitive for some, but Sullivan soon filled the empty offices with various professionals interested in his model. For many, Lifeworks is their first foray into private practice, and each joined because they saw how the organization's cooperative model helps position them for the future, Sullivan says.

"I still may have the most expensive game in town," he says. "But they know that we're going to do everything we can to help them get their heads above water and start swimming."

Power in numbers

No one has gone belly-up yet, says Sullivan. In fact, this collaborative life preserver model is what makes Lifeworks tick, says licensed professional counselor Faye Slater. She liked the idea of coming to an office where she could work in partnership to help a client--either by asking another Lifeworks partner for a consultation, or even having them join one of her client sessions to help get through an impasse.

"It's so much easier to refer someone to the office next to you than to tell them to go see this person across town because the connection is more likely to be made," Slater says. "I did not get that when I was practicing independently."

And much of the Lifeworks clan agrees that having everyone under one roof improves clients' follow-up on referrals. Sullivan says he has worked with clients concurrently and sequentially with life coach Anne Newell, family law attorney Lynn Murphy, JD, and with the office's psychiatrist, Dena Armstrong, MD. For example, during work with one client battling a long history of depression, it came out that the client's dead-end job was a main source of stress, which fueled her mood problems. While Sullivan continued to work with the client on managing the disorder, he also referred her to Newell, who helped the client develop herself professionally and find a new job. And Murphy, a specialist in collaborative law, helps divorcing couples come to agreement without going to court, and often works in tandem with experts in mental health and financial planning.

At Lifeworks, clients benefit from care that addresses so many of their mental health and wellness needs, which are often more related than people realize, says office manager Courtney Loveless.

"People don't usually consider how interconnected everything is, and how when one thing gets out of whack, it's like a domino effect," she says. "When you're in crisis, it's pretty hard to balance the checkbook and take care of other things in your life."

Some psychologists might not be comfortable with this type of entrepreneurial and promotional style--Lifeworks sponsors community events and uses multiple marketing strategies including phone book listings to promote the practice--Sullivan admits. But he believes that by surrounding himself with professionals outside his area of expertise, he provides clients with a higher level of care.

"Because we come from diverse fields that otherwise might not interact, we have greater knowledge of and access to resources that we might not otherwise know existed," he says. "I know that I am a better clinician for my clients because I know that if I don't have an answer, I have good people nearby who I can ask."