Are you taking readings from the complaint barometer?

Are you taking readings from the complaint barometer?

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Feb 01, 2006

There was a time, not a generation ago, when most veterinarians in the good ole' USA showed a net profit before veterinary salaries of 40-plus percent. Some even broke the 50-percent mark. Of course, those were simpler times. It was before the first oil embargo of the '70s and 15 percent inflation. There was a now-forbidden "combination injection" available that was penicillin and streptomycin combined. There was even a penicillin/ streptomycin/cortisone combination. There was a product called Diathal(tm) that cured diarrhea of any type with one or two injections and a magical injection called miketamide that could just about revive the dead in less than five seconds after injection. Some old timers managed to get one bottle of each to last a month and with a large bottle of prednisone tablets represented almost their total pharmacy expense.


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They might not be considered "progressive vets", but their expenses were few, and many saw 55 percent of their revenues fall to the bottom line. Many had radiographic equipment recycled from the Korean War that might have cost them $500 and when boosted to 220 volts, it could produce 60 milliamps at a roaring speed of one-tenth of a second. Staff training included saving money by drying out wet paper towels for reuse. Surgical gloves were washed, dried and re-powdered to last for at least a month of surgeries.

Laboratory equipment consisted of a centrifuge for hematocrit and urine sediments and little strips of paper that could be dipped in serum to approximate a BUN or glucose. Without the $40,000 laboratory equipment, the $50,000 plus digital X-Ray equipment ultrasound, endoscope and the $7,000 dollars of drugs sitting in the pharmacy, most practitioners earned a great living even with an office visit of $5 and selling a case of prescription diet for $8.

In those days, you could take your date to two movies and a bunch of cartoons, have a couple of soft drinks and all the popcorn in the world for a buck! A cup of coffee was a nickel, gasoline was 20 cents a gallon, a carton of cigarettes was $2 and often came with green stamps that could be accumulated for fabulous household goods, and first-class postage was 5 cents!

Thankfully, times have changed. Sort of.

Now, our postal service upped the price of a first-class postage stamp to 39 cents. I don't much care how much a carton of cancer sticks sells for today, but gasoline is a whole lot more than 20 cents a gallon.

Sure, inflation is hell! So is trying to net 50 percent. Somehow or other, the message has gotten lost that clients can and do provide the profits. Somehow, in the last couple of decades, veterinarians started settling for 25-30 percent net. Costs of practice have skyrocketed but our profession has failed to keep the fees appropriate to our costs of doing business.

In our on-site consultations for many practices over the years, we solicit suggestions from staff. One prize-winning reply was; "I think our fees should be lower. Not that our clients can't afford these fees, but they are cheap and complain at every opportunity."

Two maxims of life are: It is the squeaky wheel that gets the grease, and, of course, the biblical admonition "Ask and ye shall receive."

Complaints get action, and most veterinary professionals would rather quit than fight, concede than debate, and they might adhere to the concept that vows of poverty are not limited to the clergy.

Here's the reality check: Two fee complaints per day from clients for each veterinarian in the practice are just normal! These fee gripes are just part and parcel of normal human interactions.

P.S. If you are not getting two complaints per day, maybe your fees are too low!