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Success in a Rural Practice: Service Gap Analysis


Discover how Service Gap Analysis can transform your rural practice into a thriving business.


Rebecca Tolhurst

May, 2024

Service gap analysis (SGA) is not something most health practitioners consider when setting up in a new location, particularly in rural areas. It’s a common term used in public health to identify where services are required and where they are not. It’s often applied to government sponsored programs rolled out by community health centres and similar organisations in the private sector who are seeking grants or funding. SGA is a normal part of strategic planning and program design for health service provision in the public and not for profit sectors, however it can be extremely useful for practitioners to consider before starting up a business in a town where numerous other businesses provide the same services.

Using SGA can benefit a new business greatly, because where we find service gaps and fill them, we start with and stay at full capacity rather than scrambling around to convince potential patients that we are going to offer something better than what they already have in the other practitioners in the local area.  It saves work, helps more patients, and removes animosity between practitioners so that we can all live more harmoniously.

Beyond grants and funding in the private sector, where most Allied Health professions, including Chinese Medicine, sit in the overall governance of our Health services in the Australian context, we often omit this type of analysis, even though it could be the make or break to a profitable business model.

So, let’s start by defining SGA, then we will discuss how it pertains to an individual practice model in a rural setting.



What is Service Gap Analysis?  


SGA is a process that shows us where the gaps in a particular health service are, so that service may be filled to capacity once it is implemented. Most of the time, it’s used to prevent overspending and ensure that what is provided is used to its fullest extent, and reported to be a successful program.

In business discussion we talk about doing your market research before you start, so that you know who your competition is, what they do, where they are and how they work, with a possibility of either networking with them or, if you are competitive, knowing what you have to do to meet and exceed their standards so their customers become your customers. 

Doing your SGA is similar to this, but with a view to establishing what services are available, how many are available, what population they are servicing, what their uptake is like, and how likely YOU are to be able to convert the customers to eventually come to see you. In rural areas if you’re not well known and don’t have anyone to introduce you, this can be very difficult.

Following are the steps you should consider taking to conduct your SGA. 

Step 1: Define your parameters.

Ask questions and tabulate the data

Good example questions:

How old are your clients?

What is their gender?

Where do they live?

How much money do they have?  Average weekly income.

Do they access any other allied health services, and if so, which ones?

How far do they have to travel to get to you?

Are they local or tourists?

Step 2: Do your numbers

How many clients of that age and gender, living in your service area are going to be able to afford you?

How many other health services similar to or the same as you are there in the area you hope to service? 

Step 3: Do some further population research

What is the uptake of complementary therapies or allied health in this area?  There may or may not be pre-established studies to this effect or you could speak to other practitioners or GP clinics.

What is the socioeconomic status of the area? Does it match how much you hope to charge?


Example 1:

Rural medium sized town, population 7500 plus outlying areas of around 16000 people

Location – rural centre approximately 35 minutes drive away

Average Weekly Income $1100 p/w

You can use census data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics to ascertain what the population is, how many people in your age and gender demographic there are, how much money they have and what their living conditions are like with regard to mortgage vs average wage & health expenditure.


3 Osteopaths, 8 Chinese Medicine Practitioners, 4 Podiatrists, 6 Myotherapists, 3 Massage therapists, 3 Chiropractors, 6 Physios, 0 health food stores, 3 gyms

Do a google search and find out who your neighbours are and ask them how busy they have been. Also check aligned services who will refer to you.


This market is flooded with Chinese Medicine Practitioners and it is unlikely that another would help anyone, including the new practitioner.


Example 2:

Rural medium sized town population around 8,100, outlying areas around 18000 people

Location – rural centre approximately 50 min drive away

Average Weekly Income $867p/w


6 Physiotherapists, 1 Osteopath, 2 Chiropractors, 3 gyms, 1 health food store, 3 Podiatrists,  1 Myotherapist, 0 Chinese Medicine Practitioners, 8 massage therapists


This environment is perfect for a new TCM practitioner to be busy immediately, especially if they are working from a space which cross refers. There are NO other practitioners offering the same service in town and the market is open so it’s likely you will always be fully booked.

So the SGA shows us that there is a service gap in Example 2 that would benefit everyone from being filled to provide TCM services in a space where there were previously no services and where there is a need for services. Example 1 show us that many practitioners are already working in the town, providing the service. Another practitioner would be unlikely to be successful in that town, would deplete themselves by having to try too hard to find new clients, and would also deplete the other practitioners by throwing their hat into the ring in an overly saturated market.

Tools for establishing your business

SGA is an important tool to ensure the future success of your Chinese Medicine business in a rural area.   Knowledge is power, and the more you know about what’s available, the quicker you will be able to fill the gaps where the service is needed instead of trying to establish yourself where people already have access to a wide range of services.  If you corner the market in the right area, you can keep yourself busy for your whole career.  Now go forth, and conquer a small town, all by yourself.


Dr Rebecca Tolhurst 

is a successful clinic owner-operator, acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist in Daylesford, Victoria. With two Chinese medicine Bachelor qualifications and a Graduate Diploma in Public Health, she is in her 18th year of clinical practice. Her interests include Public Health, Health Equity; Community Acupuncture; Alcohol & Other Drugs addiction therapy,  detoxification, rehabilitation & recovery; mental health; global diversity in traditional plant-based health & spiritual care.

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