As the owner of a cat with a chronic illness, I am no stranger to my veterinarian. We were lucky that throughout the pandemic Big Moose, my cat, did not have any serious flare up of his illness. That said, I still got to see how our vet practice navigated lockdown measures while still providing necessary care, medicine, and products to their clients every time I had to head to the clinic to buy Big Moose’s specially prescribed food. It was clear during those interactions that the pandemic has not impacted the dedication these professionals have to their career, as well as to their clients and their owners.
Caring for the Carers
Back in December of 2019, the North American Veterinary Community (NAVC) conducted research to find out how vets and vet techs feel about the industry, their jobs, and the future of veterinary care in general. The survey results were later published in Amplifying the Voice of the Veterinary Community, and as it turns out the timing could not have been any better: very soon after this research was complete, the veterinary sector (and every other sector, for that matter) was catapulted into the Coronavirus pandemic.
The data collected became even more valuable as the veterinary community had to adjust to a new way of tending to their clients while keeping business going.
Among the 293 veterinarians polled, the top five (out of fifteen) concerns regarding important qualities in making an excellent veterinary team were:
- Having a well-staffed office/veterinarian team
- Communicating effectively with clients
- Having an upbeat/positive attitude
- Being calm during difficult/stressful situations
- Properly utilizing veterinary team members
Among the other concerns ranked were:
- Effectively managing time from patient to patient.
- Staying on top of the latest techniques/developments in diagnosis & treatments.
- Spending sufficient time with patients.
Regarding job satisfaction, the top stressors included:
- High student debt (combined with lower income for vet techs and nurses)
- Pressure to adhere to time restrictions per patient
- Staff turnover
- Pet owners using the internet for information
All that to say: take the concerns veterinarians had for running a top-tier practice (even prior to the pandemic), add the downsides to being a vet, and then throw a massive global event like Coronavirus on top of the mix, well you can practically hear the sizzle of the burnout from simply reading this paragraph!
The weird thing about this is that while most other sectors had to grapple with a dramatic decline in business, veterinarians as a whole saw an increase.
The New York Times published an article highlighting this surprising turn of events, and some of the reasons veterinarians found themselves busier than ever.
- The pandemic forced millions of Americans to work from home, inspiring many to welcome a new furry family member who would eventually need veterinary care.
- Americans who already had pets were able to observe them more and could notice any changes in their cat’s or their dog’s behavior and health.
- In that vein, one emergency vet even noted a rise in cases of urinary obstructions among cats, which could be attributed to stress due to a change in their environment (i.e., their people suddenly being home ALL. THE. TIME.)
- Heather Loenser of the American Animal Hospital Association also coined the term “staring at your pet syndrome”: where pet owners notice subtle differences in their pets that might raise concern in a quarantined pet owner, but that don’t necessarily require medical intervention.
One more interesting contributor to this boom in business is the Millennial factor: those born between 1981 and 1996 are having fewer children, and- as a result- have more disposable income which they are choosing to spend on their pets.
A report by People indicated that 33 percent of millennials spent more than usual on their dogs during the pandemic, on everything from organic pet food to birthday parties (or “paw-ties”). Naturally, an individual who would go to such lengths for their pet would also be certain to keep on top of their companion’s healthcare.
Juggling an increase in patient load while keeping pandemic guidelines in check is something veterinarians across the nation had to master. As we (hopefully) near the end of this event, what practices might translate well into the post-pandemic future? The NAVC’s Clinic Innovation Guide has some excellent suggestions!
- Expand (or even begin!) your e-commerce offerings. Make it easy for your clients to book appointments and purchase medications, food, and supplies online for pick-up or delivery.
- Consider making virtual care a regular part of your practice. Many pet owners know the value of talking directly to their veterinarian and could appreciate the convenience of a telehealth consultation while also avoiding the stress that comes from transporting a pet who might not already feel very well into an unfamiliar environment.
- Continue with curbside drop-offs and pickups. Allowing clients to schedule and submit their information online ahead of time will simplify things for everyone involved.
Another aspect to the future of veterinary services is the option to incorporate. Brakke Consulting (specializing in animal health and veterinary consulting) predicts that twenty-five percent of veterinary practices will be corporately owned within the next few years. Corporations such as Mars, which owns the VCA and Banfield pet Hospital chains already have nearly 2,000 practices, followed by National Veterinary Associates with over 400, and VetCor with more than 200.
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) states there are some convincing reasons more veterinarians are considering going corporate, such as it being a good investment opportunity, as well as it being a solution to the veterinarian retirement bubble, as fewer veterinarians are considering sole ownership. To decide if this is the right direction for your practice, I once again turn to NAVC’s Clinic Innovation Guide for their list of pros & cons on the subject.
- The payout: selling to a corporation could produce a very lucrative return for private practice, and even more so if the sale includes real estate.
- Increased HR support: many larger, established consolidators are equipped with employee benefit programs, recruiting staff, and other human resource benefits that are often hard to come by for smaller private practices.
- Benchmarking ability: by being part of a group, you can access data about how your specific location is performing compared to the others under the same umbrella. You can gain insight as to what business practices work, how to improve, etc.
- Upward mobility: as the owner of private practice, the ceiling is pretty much set on job advancement. But there are veterinarians who have sold their practices to corporations and have moved on to a management role within the company, opening up a whole new career path.
- Less control: selling to a corporation often means handing over the reins so far as major decision-making goes. It could also mean changing the name of the practice, how medicine is practiced, and who gets to work there.
- Diminished Return on Investment: It’s not necessarily an all-or-nothing situation (some owners might make a deal to retain a minority share in the business after the sale), but the piper, rather the corporation, must be paid.
- Less local flair: corporations may not be interested in contributing to each location’s role in their respective communities (like sponsoring local softball teams, for example).
- Longer chain of command: while in a smaller private practice, someone may have one or two steps to relay an idea to the owner, the chain of command within a corporation could be significantly longer, making it more difficult to offer suggestions or to get answers to questions.
We're In This Together
Whatever the future holds, there will always be a need for caring, dedicated, and diligent veterinarians. Animals cannot tell us directly when something is wrong, and veterinarians are the closest things to translators we’ve got. So for that, pet owners like me and our vulnerable companions like Big Moose appreciate you more than you know.
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