2012 and beyond: Economic outlook clouded by a myriad of new challenges for veterinary practices - DVM
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2012 and beyond: Economic outlook clouded by a myriad of new challenges for veterinary practices
Economic outlook clouded by a myriad of new challenges for veterinary practices


Emphasizing wellness

The Partnership for Preventive Pet Healthcare was established in July, and by September 1 the group, which is made up of 19 veterinary associations and other industry-related companies and parties, published canine and feline preventive healthcare guidelines. The group and the guidelines were founded, in large part, due to the highly revealing statistics gleaned from studies published this year, including the Bayer/Brakke study and the Banfield State of Pet Health 2011 report. The upshot of that research is obvious to most practicing companion-animal veterinarians: Visits are down and pets are coming into the clinic sicker.

While the lagging economy may not be solely to blame for veterinary practices' challenges, the preceding boom may have made certain service gaps less noticeable, Cavanaugh contends. "If you go back a few years, all practices were busy and the economy was strong. Things start to fall through the cracks: You don't have as many cats coming in. People aren't paying as much attention to vaccinations, fecal exams, etc."

As first reported by DVM Newsmagazine, Banfield's data revealed that several preventable diseases and conditions are on the upswing. Parasites have been on the rise in cats and dogs for the last five years. The prevalence of fleas and ticks on pets has increased, and both dental disease and ear infections are also up, among other common conditions.

Moving forward, many think promoting the idea of preventing problems before they start and ensuring pets have routine care will not only enhance the pet population's overall health, but also help spur veterinary visits. According to Volk, the Bayer/Brakke study found that when a practice had a strong belief in the importance of wellness exams, that drove visits. "If veterinarians can educate pet owners on the need for preventive care, and even more attention as pets get older, and that those routine visits can keep pets healthier, there's a great opportunity there," says Volk.

Especially as pets age, he adds, there is a large disconnect between owners' beliefs about the importance of pet healthcare and what is actually necessary. "Part of that goes back to the vaccination issue," Volk says, noting that many owners surveyed associated visits with vaccinations. "Owners don't appreciate that older pets need more medical attention. You would think it would be intuitive because as people get older we need more medical attention, but not everybody makes that leap."

The preventive pet healthcare guidelines should be a key tool in every practitioner's arsenal, adds Felsted. "To me, one of the best things is that veterinarians could use them as a mantra when educating clients."

Embracing a niche

Thorough preventive care is commonplace among Dr. Kate Knutson's patients. At her practice, Pet Crossing Animal Hospital and Dental Clinic in Bloomington, Minn., she often sees patients many times throughout the course of a year for routine care. Annually, Knutson and her staff develop an individualized healthcare plan for a patient that consists of needed vaccinations, nutritional and dental assessments and baseline values, which include body films, dental radiographs, blood work and urinalysis. A pet's behavior is also evaluated.

"With us, we have a niche market, and it's preventive healthcare. We weed people out before they even come (to us)," she says. "We market to people whose pets are part of their family. My clients would give up smoking or Starbucks or cable to care for their pets."

This approach has been successful for Knutson's business, though she acknowledges it's not appropriate for all pet owners. Volk agrees.

"Pet owners are not all alike," he says. "There are different segments of the population that shop for groceries at Aldi or Sam's (Club) and others who shop at Whole Foods. I think we'll see veterinarians responding to pet owners and the different requirements they have."

To meet those demands, Volk predicts that practices may evolve to focus on low-cost basic services or more comprehensive medical offerings, along with some staying in the middle, to offer a wider variety of choices for clients.

Felsted notes that, in fact, there is a need for some practices to zero in on serving those owners with limited incomes. "The average household income in the United States is less than $50,000 for about 2.3 people," she says. "It's hard for people in a household like that to go (to the veterinarian) and write a $150 check. Those people are probably never going to do a total hip, but they still want to take care of their pets."

Even if a practice markets itself to those with average incomes, financial success is possible. After all, Felsted says, "Walmart makes a fortune."

Refining the business model has been a necessity for Safe Haven Veterinary Hospital's Stuart. As numerous low-cost vaccine and spay/neuter providers have moved into his practice area, Stuart says he focuses on wellness and higher-end offerings as well as the fact that his clinic is the only AAHA-certified hospital in the county. "We have people come here and say (they) go elsewhere for less-expensive stuff, but that they want to come here when they have a problem," he says. "We try to maintain a higher standard and a better array of diagnostics."

But business is tough, and he is not alone. "Once upon a time the standard was veterinarians wouldn't go out of business. We're definitely in different times."


Source: DVM360 MAGAZINE,
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