Karen Finnin - From physiotherapist to telehealth pioneer

Karen Finnin is a self-proclaimed accidental entrepreneur, but also a pioneer of the online healthcare movement. We talked to Karen to find out how she went from rural physiotherapist to telehealth pioneer.

Amy Conley·

Telehealth physiotherapist Karen Finnin

Karen Finnin wanted to be a ballerina but "I was half an inch too short for the Australian Ballet School," she says. Ballet, however, had developed her interest in how the body moves. This interest led her to undergrad studies in Physiotherapy at LaTrobe University in Melbourne (Australia), before completing her Masters in Musculoskeletal Physiotherapy seven years later (also at LaTrobe University). “Not bad for a career which was originally a plan b," says Karen.

Much of her early career was based in remote, rural communities in Australia, giving some early  exposure to the demand there was for access to quality healthcare in locations where allied resources were strained. She remembers those early days quite vividly.

I took to rural living immediately. I loved the community feel of the town, and how simple life was there. It was in Kyabram that I started to appreciate the unique pressures of people who work on the land. I made the mistake of telling a dairy farmer with back pain to rest during calving season. He roared with laughter at this 21-year-old city girl physio. There ain’t no rest for a dairy farmer in calving season. Duly noted.

Karen eventually moved on to a busy private practice in a neighbouring town. Of her time working in the practice in Echuca, she says "I was seeing close to 100 patients a week, as we were the only physio practice in town". This left Karen burnt out so she decided to travel around Australia, and landed a job at a sports medicine practice in Darwin. Here she was struck by the amount of patients travelling for physio treatments:

“The standard of care was excellent, but there were some patients who had to travel 6+ hours just to get to our practice. It was here I truly appreciated the remoteness of some parts of Australia.”

Eventually, she met  the man who was to become her husband, Dan, a sports physio. The two then headed to East Timor where Dan had gotten a job contracting for the Australian Defence Force.

Karen started East Timor's first ever physiotherapy practice—initially to keep herself occupied while Dan was busy at work. Karen's patients were the thousands of expats living in East Timor at that time, helping to rebuild the war-torn nation.

Eventually, when it came time to move back to Australia, Karen realised that she still felt connected to the community of expats that she'd treated for three years, and that the gap in available health care services had not closed for this community, and those like it. Deciding that she still had something to offer them—this time remotely—Online.Physio was born.

Karen dipped right into exploring what was, so far, the unknown. "I started out by doing online consultations with family, friends, and the expat community in East Timor. I was impressed to discover how helpful my physio knowledge and skills could be from a distance. When compared to no physio at all, I could offer these people a clear diagnosis, great education and a tailored rehabilitation plan...all online!"

It is this principle of really valuing independence and access, both for patients and practitioners, that really sticks out about Karen's approach to work. Her team is entirely remote, and ever growing. Karen notes, of her flexible and varied schedule, "I value my location independence so highly, and I love working with others who appreciate this too. I love that my days are varied in both tasks and locations. Most of my work can be done from my computer, so it goes everywhere with me."

Australian telehealth pioneer Karen Finnin

Of course, building a successful and innovative business doesn't just happen, and Karen's approach to marketing success shows how valuable it can be to come to a task with an iterative approach. "I initially spent a lot of time reaching out to GPs in rurally post-coded areas, particularly towns without a physio practice. It was really tough going and while doing this, we discovered that the patients themselves were simply finding us online so we opted to cut out the middleman and focus on creating content and value to help potential patients to find us directly. We have to keep evolving and learning."

It was, in part, this continual learning principle that first attracted her to Cliniko: "I take platform selection very seriously. Our digital practice is made up of a suite of cloud based tech tools, and each one is very carefully chosen. [Cliniko's] commitment to constant improvements based directly on user feedback is second-to-none, and [Cliniko] are proactive with developing integrations and collaborations, meaning the systems that we use can talk to each other and make our workflow more efficient."

Karen also cleverly makes use of some Cliniko hacks, courtesy of our fabulous integrators: "I got a great tip from the team at Clinic Mastery to create reports in a specially formatted 'treatment note' template. We export this as a PDF to send to our patients as a summary of their consultation with us.”

The idea of a “we” is of course important to Karen’s operation—she has a growing team supporting her work, and makes use of her people and software to help her focus on what she really loves to do, rather than feeling like she needed to be across all the minutiae of producing content:

“I knew I needed to grow my team when I felt really bogged down by the admin type 'grunt work' of the practice. For example, I would create a piece of video content, but then spend hours editing it, uploading it, formatting subtitles for it, writing captions for it, scheduling it into social media, formatting it into an eNewsletter—all quite repetitive processes. So I created systems for all of these steps, and now our project management software prompts my virtual assistant Mary on the tasks she needs to do, and prompts me only on the steps that really need me—I still like to write my own captions!”

One of the most striking features of Karen's approach to business is responsiveness to what her clients need:

People are now very comfortable with dating, banking and ordering food online, and I think accessing healthcare online is a logical extension of that.

Noting that it's important to be responsive to changes in the industry too: "The future of healthcare is exciting if we can adopt an open mindset to change."

Being back and forth between Shanghai, where her husband is currently based, and Melbourne where she currently sets up her work home front, Karen is all too aware of the need for a flexible approach, which she also extends to her employees. She explains that "in this era of digital nomads and hot desking, workers across all industries are pushing for more flexible work options, and I think telehealth speaks to that for therapists."

It's this consciousness of trends in the industry, and certainly a generosity of spirit that has led Karen to focus on helping others develop their telehealth businesses (what a multi-tasker!). She spends quite a bit of her time working as a mentor to other healthcare businesses that are looking to get started in telehealth and how to best leverage technology to provide a service, speaking at conferences and podcasts and sharing her knowledge however she can.

'I consider 'tech' to be a team member' she says. “I know it sounds ridiculous, but when set up well, technology platforms can act like a great administrative assistant!”

As much as she's mindful of working with the best technologies (like Cliniko) Karen notes that the motivation you take into your tasks is equally important in achieving success. Finding your “reason” is key.

"Be crystal clear on why you are doing it. If it's purely financial, you can often work full time for someone else, and earn more, with far less stress and responsibility. Be sure that there is a clear problem that you are solving for your clients."

Casting her mind back to the beginning of her journey, Karen encourages people to go ahead and take a risk.

You know what? I'm glad I went in 'green'. If I knew what I know now, I may have found it too overwhelming to start - Karen Finnin

One of those tasks that Karen needed to grab with both hands right from the get go was the development of her website:

“The main thing I needed to launch Online.Physio was a website. I had no idea about building websites or working with developers when I first got started, and it was a huge learning curve for me. We are now on our third complete rebuild of the Online.Physio website, and I really love working with our developers to bring our ideas to life.”

Karen’s advice for aspiring clinical business owners?

“Just jump in, make mistakes, learn from them, learn from others, learn from your clients. Do the bits you love, and find others to help you with the bits you don't."

We bet you'll find your journey just as rewarding, if not just as messy at times, as Karen has. Watch Karen's presentation 'Third world to online world' at Cliniko's community meetup in Melbourne last month.

Author information

Amy is a member of our Cliniko support team, and is based in Tasmania, Australia. She's an early-rising, tea-drinking hiker (but don't ask her to read a map!).

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