Louisville resident Emily Freeman recently underwent knee surgery again. For the 16th time. And for nearly 20 years, she’s trusted the care of her knee, which she injured in a car accident, to only one orthopedic surgeon: Dr. Stacie Grossfeld.
That kind of customer loyalty plays a critical role in the success of Grossfeld’s business, Orthopaedic Specialists, an independent practice that gets about half of new patients through word of mouth.
As an athlete herself — she especially enjoys running and biking — Grossfeld said she understands the frustration of injuries, and enjoys helping people get back on the track, pitch or field — or just into their normal routine.
“It’s very gratifying from a surgeon’s perspective,” she said.
Grossfeld’s business success recently was recognized by the Louisville chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners, which awarded her the EPIC Award for Small Business Owner of the Year.
The Baltimore native moved to northern Wisconsin at age 7, and “lived in the middle of nowhere,” which, she said, meant her primary forms of entertainment were biking and running.
In college in Minnesota, she volunteered at a hospital and shadowed an orthopedic surgeon.
“That’s when I knew,” she said.
She did her residency at the University of Minnesota, followed by a fellowship near Toronto in sports medicine, where she performed knee and shoulder reconstructions.
She came to Louisville to join the surgeon with whom she had worked in college, but the group of four surgeons and support staff fell apart about five years ago, and Grossfeld decided to venture out on her own.
Within three weeks, she had set up the new business. Retaining the name and phone numbers helped greatly, she said. Her patients stayed with her, as did many employees.
To make up for the decline in patient referrals that come with working in a larger clinic, she started writing a blog and sought advice from an IT expert who helped her get good exposure on Internet search engines.
Many people with an orthopedic injury don’t go to their primary care physicians because they would have to wait too long for an appointment, Grossfeld said. Instead, many patients simply search the Web for a nearby orthopedic specialist who can help repair banged up shoulders, knees or ankles.
Patient referrals are critical, Grossfeld said. She estimates that about half of the new patients she sees learn about her from other patients.
“We’re in the customer service business for sure,” she said.
Grossfeld and a physician’s assistant she hired recently see about 180 patients per week, and she said she understands the investment that patients make, both in terms of copays and taking time off work.
Freeman said she appreciates that Grossfeld takes her time to explain to her patients — in as much detail as they want — what problems they’re having and how they can be fixed.
“She’s always just very caring and very patient,” Freeman said.
In 1997, a car accident propelled Freeman’s femur into her knee and tore up the underside of the knee cap. She said she has no cartilage left in her right knee, which means bone rubs on bone, creating discomfort. Sometimes pieces of bone break off and lock the knee joint — and then she returns to Grossfeld for help.
Freeman said she also appreciates that Grossfeld has referred her to other specialists and has performed surgeries together with other doctors to try different approaches to improve Freeman’s knee joint.
The ability to move freely and without pain is critical for Freeman, who works as an elementary school librarian and has to walk around the room to read with the kids. Getting rid of the pain in her knee also allows the 37-year-old to perform normal household chores and not be dependent upon her husband.
The orthopedic surgery field has changed dramatically in the last 20 years because of specialization and rising expectations among patients, especially aging baby boomers, according to Grossfeld.
When she started her career, orthopedic surgeons were doing a lot of different procedures, but they focus more on niches today. Grossfeld no longer does joint replacements — because she does not have time. Instead, she focuses on shoulder and knee arthroscopy, meniscus work and arthritis treatments.
Grossfeld is seeing more sports-related injuries in younger athletes, and people increasingly are staying active into old age. That’s great, she said, but it also means orthopedic surgeons are expected to fix a 65-year-old tennis player’s torn rotator cuff quickly so that she can get back onto the court.
The number of independent orthopedic surgeons has starkly declined in the last few years, as many have joined hospital systems. However, Grossfeld prefers being independent, saying she didn’t go to school for many years to now have someone tell her when she has to come to work, whom she can hire, how many patients she has to see, and where she has to perform her surgeries.
She now enjoys keeping a close eye on the budget and bill collections and making sure everyone in her office understands that every point of contact with a patient has to run smoothly — otherwise you risk losing a customer.
Grossfeld said her business has produced profits from the first day, in part because she keeps overhead low, and because her staff pays attention to billing. She said she collects 99 percent of what is billed, much more than many competitors, and she sends a bill within 48 hours — whereas some surgeons don’t bill for months, she said.
Grossfeld’s practice is a family business, of sorts, as her husband, Karl Dockstader, a mechanical engineer by trade, does all her finances. She said she couldn’t run the business without his help. While Grossfeld drives their son, Adam, 9, to school, Dockstader picks him up and takes him to appointments.
Grossfeld said she can tolerate the paperwork aspect of her business but enjoys patient interaction and the technical aspect of surgeries.
“Nothing is more fun than a rotator cuff repair,” she said with a laugh. “It’s like hitting an awesome backhand.”