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Friday, Dec 1, 2023

Talk Therapy For the Stars

Barely two months ago Naomi Rahmani upgraded her Encino-based speech and language pathology practice Achieve Speech Associates with a new office at the Woodley Building on Ventura Boulevard, but the 28-year-old California State University – Northridge graduate is already thinking bigger. With a client roster that includes young Hollywood actors and a number of big-name company executives, Rahmani is eager to offer Achieve’s services to more patients. “I moved into my new unit only to realize it’s a little too small,” Rahmani said. “But right now I have a waiting list, so the next step is to hire.” At the same time, she also is looking for real estate to open two more offices – one in Calabasas and another in Beverly Hills. Why the big demand in speech pathology? The market has grown dramatically in the past decade, a trend that experts expect will continue. Employment projections for therapists like Rahmani is projected to grow 18 percent between 2016 and 2026, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The bureau cites the aging population as one cause of the increase. By comparison, the average growth rate for all professions is estimated at 7 percent. Rahmani has capitalized on this inherent demand by using social media to engage with prospective clients, a tactic that has more than doubled her revenue in a matter of months. But while she is eager to expand her business, she is cautious about losing the element that gives her an edge: Highly personalized service with in-depth weekly or biweekly therapy sessions that can go up to 90 minutes long, about three times the industry average. “Right now it’s kind of a boutique practice where I do have the time to invest a lot into each and every patient,” she said. “It’s very important to me to keep that individualized therapy feeling.” Executive clients Rahmani’s client roster ranges from pediatric autism patients to professional actors to business leaders. Most patients fall into one of two categories: Young patients with speech impediments, such as lisps, and elderly patients with conditions that have affected their ability to speak. One of her favorite success stories centers on an older executive who turned to Rahmani after losing his voice to Parkinson’s disease. “A lot of depression came with that,” Rahmani recalled. “We restored much of his voice back with the program that we do, and he went back to running his company – and feeling confident about it.” Other wins include a child actor who is able to work on a Disney Channel show thanks to sessions at Achieve, which in turn has led casting agents to call on Rahmani for assistance with other up-and-coming stars. Rahmani increasingly finds herself working with talent on set or consulting with performers remotely over FaceTime. Actors also come to Achieve independently after seeing improvement in their colleagues. “Recently I was working with a comedian who was cracking jokes the whole time,” she said. “I thought, I can’t believe I’m getting paid for this.” While word-of-mouth has been the main source of new clients since Rahmani founded Achieve in 2013, she attributes its recent growth trajectory to the power of social media. The secret sauce has nothing to do with Facebook ads or Instagram giveaways – instead, it’s all about getting in front of the right audience. “I’m in a lot of Facebook groups online, especially ‘mommy’ groups,” Rahmani explained. “My (adult) patients are in those groups, so when another mom requests a speech therapist, they recommend me.” Rahmani also has recruited clients through a rather surprising platform: Snapchat. For instance, a casting agent who first saw Achieve on Yelp tracked Rahmani down on the photo-sharing app. “He started sending me patients left and right,” Rahmani said. “Social media factors a lot into my strategy – I’ve never actually done any advertising.” Challenges ahead Rahmani has seen firsthand that when a practice scales up, it risks prioritizing quantity over quality. While working toward her graduate degree at Touro College in Brooklyn, she witnessed other practitioners selling out their patient care philosophy in favor of profits. “I’ve worked in different practices that were where I am now, and turned into corporations where it turned into a factory,” Rahmani said. She has determined that all future hires will have to share her vision for offering individualized therapy, Rahmani said, and will be expected to show passion for their work. In an industry with fierce competition – there are more than a dozen speech-language pathologists in Encino alone – the patient-centric approach is about more than ethics. It’s also the core of Rahmani’s value proposition. “We all want financial growth – that’s part of owning a business,” she said. “But there are a million speech therapists out there. People go to the services that they feel comfortable with.” Paying her clinicians well is also a key element to Rahmani’s long-term strategy. All time spent working on clients’ cases, whether directly during sessions or peripherally during after-hours consultations with other members of their care management teams, is compensated, Rahmani said. “I pay my clinicians to give that extra time,” Rahmani explained. “That way they aren’t rushing.” At Achieve’s current size, Rahmani can afford the expense; she does not take payments from insurance, and patients or their parents are willing to pay out of pocket for high-quality therapy. But as the business expands – and, in particular, as Rahmani takes on more elderly patients – she expects that she will need to think carefully about whether or not to begin accepting insurance patients. “(Insurance) reimbursement rates are really low, and months could lapse before you’re paid,” she said. “One of my fears is that the personalized aspect would deteriorate if we began accepting insurance and added many more clinicians, but it’s not a bridge that I’ve crossed yet.” For now, Rahmani plans to keep the number of practitioners in her clinics low, and she is grateful to have a job that doesn’t feel like work. “It’s been very, very busy, but it’s amazing to wake up in the morning knowing I go into work and do something that changes people’s lives,” Rahmani said. “And surprisingly, I get paid for it.”

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