In 2002, I took my first leap into the unknown and started my own occupational therapy private practice. After ten years of working as an occupational therapist in a mixture of government and private settings, I was burnt out and ready for change.
I was sick of paperwork over patient outcomes, and cost-cutting over care, and wanted to be the change I wanted to see in healthcare.
Like many new business owners, the journey (yes, it’s been a journey) opened my eyes to the pitfalls of running your own business- the loneliness, the potential for burnout, never being able to switch off and the need for a good support network.
These challenges were heightened in health care, where the focus is, quite rightly, on the delivery of patient outcomes, rather than the running of a business.
But it also opened my eyes to the opportunities of being my own boss- the freedom to innovate and the flexibility to make change happen. I was free to put the needs of my clients first whilst still being present for my three boys. It was the perfect solution for our family.
But I still couldn’t shake the feeling that the occupational therapy system needed changing and I worried for the health of my peers. Think about it: occupational therapists are on the go all day. Back-to-back sessions. A ridiculous amount of red tape and paperwork to achieve basic client outcomes. Precious resources are being used up on administrative tasks. A long list of clients to be seen, many with complex needs, where the occupational therapist can only scratch the surface given time constraints.
Leaving very little time to actually take care of themselves. It doesn’t make for a healthy workforce or good client outcomes.
I wanted to explore new ways of working that promote the health and wellbeing of therapists. After all, it’s the very thing we are trying to achieve with our clients. And so, my journey to disrupt the way occupational therapists work began.
Knowing there must be occupational therapists out there like me craving a better approach, a thought occurred to me: what if I could create a business model that could support other occupational therapists to set up their own practices while providing best practices for their clients?
So, that’s what I did.
In 2012, I founded Australia’s first and only occupational therapy franchise business– ActivOT– investing in health professionals and turning them into successful business owners.
Back then, franchising in allied health was virtually unheard of – it still is! But I was convinced it was the answer. Not only could it provide much-needed support and guidance for occupational therapists, but it could deliver better outcomes for our clients.
Ten years later, I’m proud to say ActivOT has 50 franchisees and is growing rapidly around Australia.
Disrupting an industry is no easy feat, particularly in health care. It’s a complex, risk-averse sector with its own unique challenges. But it can be done.
Here are five reflections on my decade of business disruption:
Fear is a sign that something is important to you
I’ve really learned to feel the fear and do it anyway. I love Henry Ford’s quote, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t you’re right…”. It’s all in the mindset and self-belief. A lot of it comes down to acknowledging and understanding where the fear comes from- it’s a sign that something is important to you! However, in those moments of fear, it’s always about what you choose to do next. You can give into that fear, and be paralysed by it. Or you can take the leap. I’ve learned to leap!
Don’t be limited by how others do things – bring your own vision to life!
Although I’ve created an incredible, Australian-first occupational therapist franchise, I don’t neatly fit into the franchise world and I’m doing something very different from the traditional healthcare service model and franchise model. 10 years on, people still don’t get it! If I’d constrained myself to the way it’s always been done, none of this would be possible.
Keep your values at the heart of everything you do
My values are what guide me and my business every day. Before I started ActivOT, my industry was stuck in a complete rut with the same old systems and approaches. By switching it up and helping occupational therapists to become successful business owners, we’re creating change for therapists and clients alike. We’re creating business owners that are advocates for their community and clients, not simply healthcare practitioners bogged down in paperwork and bureaucracy. This commitment to client care and the wellbeing of therapists should never face disruption. Any business growth is a happy by-product, but it’s not our primary focus.
It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do
“We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do”- this is a gem from the one and only Steve Jobs. I read this quote a while back and it really stuck with me. As ActivOT has grown and expanded in the most incredible way, it’s my north star when it comes to my team and potential new business owners. I’m big on bringing the right people on board, it’s the key to creating a culture, and it’s foundational to the success of ActivOT.
You can’t have all burners on high heat all at once
Emma Isaacs’ incredible book, Winging It, made such an impact that I wrote to her to tell her as much and she wrote back! Her stove-top analogy – where each burner represents an area of life, like family or business – was a total light bulb moment. After all, you can’t have all burners on high heat all at once! It’s always been a strong reminder to give my high-achieving tendencies a little break! Her tips on networking were also a total godsend. I recommend her book to anyone!
Helen Whait is an award-winning occupational therapist and innovator, the founder of ActivOT, Australia’s first occupational therapy franchise and a national finalist in the 2022 Australian Allied Health Awards.