Setting fees in psychotherapy

July 1, 2019

Setting fees in psychotherapy in the Greater Washington DC area

Setting fees in psychotherapy is, for the novitiate, a daunting task. Psychotherapists new to private practice often have neither experience nor comfort in setting fees. Most graduate and residency programs do not address this important task, during training. Beyond this, those early in their careers may be uncertain about three things:
  • whether patients will actually call
  • whether patients will pay
  • and, most importantly, whether what they, the psychotherapist, actually has something of value to offer

These three concerns make the fee setting very anxiety-producing, indeed. Add to that the patient’s anxiety and we have a recipe rife with potential for enactments. Let’s talk today about the clinician’s contribution to this mix.

Anxiety about attracting patients

On first blush, an obvious solution to this predicament seems to be having more patients calling then you can possibly treat. That is, of course, more easily said than done. It is, however, an essential ingredient to having a successful, effective, private psychotherapy practice. And that is one of the reasons why this blog focuses considerable attention on how to generate referrals. Having more patients calling then one could possibly treat allows the clinician to focus on and think about:

  1. whether he is the best clinician for a particular patient
  2. what fee is most appropriate for the patient
  3. what fee the clinician feels comfortable accepting

Of course, being a sought after clinician does not alter the anxiety inherent in assuming the weighty responsibility for taking care of psychotherapy patients. And more will be said about that in future posts.

(1) Will patients call?Call

The new private practitioner, even one with many years of clinical experience, is understandably apprehensive. Will psychotherapy patients call? If it hasn’t dawned on the psychotherapist in the past as signing ones first least, or buying ones office, inevitably, leads to the awareness that one is not only a therapist. One is, now, the owner of a small business.

The patient needs the therapist and the therapist needs the pateint

The clinician must pay rent, keep books, and, most importantly they must ensure that their care is reliable and of high quality. This places the psychotherapist in quite a precarious position so far as their patients are concerned:  they need them. And I should note parenthetically that patients, already in a high state of alert, can sense that. There is much more to be said about that fact, but I will reserve that for a subsequent post. For now, let us say that the practitioner is in that awkward, untenable position of needing patients. At this early juncture, it is perhaps naive and insensitive to say that this position of, “needing patients” gives the practitioner a whiff of what patients feel when they entrust themselves to our care. But it’s worthy of note that, in this regard, both patient and clinician are in the same anxiety-producing boat. This anxiety about referrals may make the clinician anxious when they are called upon to set fees.

(2) Will patients pay?

Setting fees in psychotherapy

Setting fees in psychotherapy

Patients have many feelings about the fee that they pay. For this reason, it’s important to be clear and straightforward about how you will handle fees. Ideally, it’s helpful to discuss the fee during the initial phone call or in the first session. Some patients, for example, those for whom therapy is a maiden voyage, may imagine that their health insurance will cover your services. Unless you work for managed care this is unlikely to be the case.

Therefore, it’s important to clarify that at the outset. At the end of the initial phone call, after setting the first appointment and providing the office address one might, say, “my fee is x”, and that is payable at the time of the session (or at whatever time the psychotherapist intends to collect the fee). Is that O.K. with you? This opens the door for the patient to assert that he plans to use his insurance or that he wishes to be seen on a sliding scale basis.

Patients have feelings about the therapist’s fee and it’s important to explore them

Another alternative, of course, is to wait until the first session before setting fees in psychotherapy. For example, 20 minutes before the end of the session you might state your fee. This allows you to begin to explore the patient’s feelings about it. Ideally, your task is twofold. You may try to understand the patient’s feelings in light of their financial reality. As importantly, you will attempt to understand their unconscious fantasies about the fee. That is, what meaning does paying the fee hold for them? What sorts of fantasies do patients have about the clinician’s fee?

Should you offer a sliding scale and if so, how should you set fee? If you decide to reduce fee, how will you approach this? What does it mean to you to reduce your fee? And what will it mean to the patient. These topics will be fodder for a subsequent post. For now, it seems important to point out that most new private practitioners are anxious about setting fees because they harbor the apprehension that they will lose patients. While this is true, at times, setting fees early and being very clear about them is an important aspect of the psychotherapeutic frame. Clarity about fees is reassuring to the patient. They now know what to expect. Setting expectations makes people feel safe.

(3) Setting Fees in Psychotherapy

Is the psychotherapist worth what he charges? —

Can you help?

Can you help?

When the patient hears the clinician’s fee, often, they wonder, is it worth it? Psychotherapy requires a commitment of time and money but these are not the worst of the patient’s anxieties. Rather, at both a conscious and unconscious level, patients are aware that psychotherapy can be painful. And on top of all of this, they is expected to pay for it! While it is understandable that the patient would lament or question the cost of psychotherapy, it can be intimidating to the new private practitioner who may have questions about their own skills.

What if the patient can not afford your fee

An empathic tone coupled with an attempt to clarify both affective and reality based anxieties about the fee can prove most useful. Also, should the reality exigencies make the fee burdensome the clinician ought to be respectful of those concerns either by reducing the fee or by referring the person to a sliding scale setting. Of course, it can be challenging to differentiate between neurotic anxieties and reality anxieties, especially when both clinician and patient are embarking on this new relationship.

Establishing the therapeutic frame in a new practice is challenging, supervision or consultation can be helpful

The best antidote to that is ongoing clinical supervision or consultation with a clinician who is skilled both clinically and in the art of private practice. In this way, uncertainties can be expressed, clarified and addressed in the supervisory setting. And then the clinician can return to the clinical setting prepared to set his own anxieties aside and empathize with the patient.

Setting fees in psychotherapy can be uncomfortable. Yet, doing so provides a template for talking together, and understanding, the array of different challenges that occur in psychotherapy.

Learn more about the therapeutic frame, how to set it up, and how to deal with departures from it, such as patient lateness and “no shows” and psychotherapist lateness.

I provide supervision for both psychodynamic psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. Also, I provide psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. If you are interested in working with me, feel free to call: 301.656.9650.

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