Editor's Note: Understanding consumer behavior can help you as a clinician and business manager. DVM Newsmagazine asked five veterinary market leaders to join this year's DVM Newsmakers' Summit at CVC East in Baltimore. Excerpts from the panel discussion will be published over the next three months.
They include: Jim Flanigan, AVMA; Dr. John King, Minnesota state board; Howard Rubin, Brightheart Veterinary Centers; Dr. Richard Timmins, Association for Veterinary Family Practice; Dr. James F. Wilson, consultant and attorney; and DVM Newsmagazine Editor Daniel R. Verdon, moderator.
Verdon: We are entering a fascinating time in the veterinary profession. No other medical profession can boast as great a popularity at a time when veterinary incomes have been simultaneously climbing. But there are challenges when it comes to consumer perceptions and expectations, and that is what we are here to talk about today. The human-animal bond remains the most important market driver, but we should never underestimate the role of the veterinarian in fostering this relationship. I think we are entering a time that will test this bond, especially as it relates to acceptance of advanced care and the costs associated with it. All of this is happening alongside a technological boom that has given veterinary practitioners access to increasingly sophisticated medical tools. So let me pose our first question to our panelists. Are consumer attitudes changing?
Flanigan: More than any other time in the profession's history, we're awash in information about the public's perception of veterinarians. For a very long time, veterinarians went on what their own instincts told them. The relationships they had with their clients informed how they thought the public perceived their profession. But today, we have a lot of wonderful information that supplements those experiences with hard data.
In addition to the AVMA's 2007 edition of the U.S. Pet Ownership & Demographics Sourcebook, which has been done since 1983, we had an animal-health consortium sponsor a study about perceptions and attitudes of pet owners. The study looks at price sensitivities of those pet owners. In addition, the AVMA completed a survey of public perceptions that we've been sharing with veterinary audiences for the last two years. There's even a wealth of information being developed by researchers or funded by entities sometimes unrelated to veterinary medicine, like the Pew Charitable Trust, all of which is being catalogued and shared by the AVMA, NCVEI and other entities within the veterinary profession to help make better decisions.
"We need to be able to explain what it is clients are getting. And we need to empathize with the client about cost."—Richard Timmins, DVM, Association of Veterinary Family Practice
In 2006, we saw an all-time record for the number of owned pets in the United States. In terms of dogs and cats, there are almost 154 million owned in the United States. For cats, that's up 38 percent from 10 years earlier; for dogs, it's up 36 percent from 10 years earlier.
Unfortunately, though, the number of veterinary visits, in spite of the fact that there were almost 181 million visits to the veterinarian in 2006, is down 7 million visits from just five years earlier. So the concern is raised, with the focus on economics over the last five to 10 years, whether veterinarians have "priced themselves out of the market" for veterinary care. What we find is that price is probably not the main driver for the decline in visits. We know overall that 17 percent of the dogs and 36 percent of the cats did not even go to a veterinarian in 2006. And that after reaching a peak in 1996, when 68 percent of all pets did see a veterinarian, that number was down 4 percentage points 10 years later. The mean number of visits is down considerably from 2001 to 2006 — on the order of 10 percent or more.