Perseverance, planning are keys to laser surgery practice success

April 1, 2006

When Tina Alster, M.D., was ready to begin her career 16 years ago, she knew one thing: She wanted to run her own laser surgery practice. But after completing her dermatology residency at Yale University and a laser surgery fellowship at Boston's University Hospital, Dr. Alster found there weren't many options available for a new doctor with the goal she wanted to pursue.

Editor's note: Every month in Residents' Forum, a dermatologist in practice or academia will discuss clinical and practice management issues affecting residents. If you're a resident and would like to see specific issues covered in this column, please e-mail the editor at mhrehocik@advanstar.com.

Today, Dr. Alster is founding director of the Washington Institute of Dermatologic Laser Surgery in Washington and clinical professor of dermatology at Georgetown University Medical Center. She's lectured around the world, written prolifically about her specialty and garnered numerous awards and recognition for her work. But her highly successful laser surgery career grew from uncertain - and sometimes humble - beginnings.

"It was 1990 when I started out, and I wasn't quite sure how to go about reaching my goal," Dr. Alster says. "No academic department was looking for a laser surgeon, no hospitals seemed very interested in acquiring expensive laser technology. I remember wondering what to do - practice general dermatology to make ends meet and get better known? Cry? Beg? Sometimes I even felt like giving up my laser surgery dream."

She didn't, of course. Here's what she did instead:

"I leased my first laser - using my car as collateral - and I secured a relatively low-interest loan," Dr. Alster says. "I subleased office space two or three days a week and hired a high school friend to do part-time office work."

She also landed a staff position at Georgetown where, incidentally, she developed a CME program, and began preparing and giving lectures at area hospitals.

"I did everything I could do to get my name and my message about laser surgery out there," Dr. Alster says. "I went door to door and introduced myself to area physicians, I made contact with the local media to inform them of the new technology I had available and I wrote review articles."

Payoff

Her efforts paid off. By the end of the first month after opening her practice, Dr. Alster had three laser patients; month two brought three more, albeit non-laser patients; by month three she had 12 - her original three laser patients, plus three more laser patients, and six others.

"By the sixth month I was able to move to my own office space," she says, "and by the end of my first year in practice I was still afloat and growing monthly."

Today, Dr. Alster's Washington Institute of Dermatologic Laser Surgery employs a 15-member staff and houses 20 laser systems. Her office is spacious enough that it's served as a reception site for meetings of the Women's Dermatologic Society, the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery and other organizations. Dr. Alster and her work in dermatologic laser surgery have generated widespread national coverage on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today show, in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and in magazines such as Vogue and Glamour. She's also a spokeswoman for Lancôme, maker of skincare products.