Ethical questions up the ante
All of this raises a bit of an ethical dilemma. As products get less and less expensive and become more readily available
through alternative channels, there is a real financial impact on the profitability of veterinary clinic dispensing. Not a
good thing. At the same time it makes products more affordable to more people, which hopefully translates to more pets being
better cared for. Which takes precedent: pet care or practice profitability? What if some prescriptions were available for
less—or even for free? (In a few areas they are, you know.) If you don't believe the word "free" works, read Free: The Future of a Radical Price (Hyperion, 2009). Do we have an obligation to inform our clients of these other options? I'm not sure I know the answer to
If superstores are effective at raising the awareness of pet health, is that a bad thing? If they tell pet owners to go to
their veterinarians for a heartworm test so they can buy the drug from them cheaper, is that a bad thing? At least they're
not providing medical care or wellness clinics—yet.
I am a firm believer that consumers will always win eventually. They will always get what they want. So what does the consumer
want when it comes to drug and product availability?
In a recent industry survey by Trone, a major marketing research company, consumers were asked their perspectives on these
issues. Here are some of the results:
- 70 percent of pet owners said they were committed to their veterinarian, likely to trust veterinary recommendations and likely
to consider additional services.
- 56 percent of pet owners said they were still most likely to purchase products and drugs from veterinary sources. (Interestingly,
77 percent of veterinarians expected that pet owners would continue to purchase from them.)
- Only 35 percent of pet owners believe that veterinary-only flea and tick products are superior.
- Only 51 percent believe that products available through veterinarians are best.
Change is never easy and in this case it might be downright painful. The profession must decide how best to address this new
entrant into the world that has heretofore been nearly a monopoly.
As Robert Kreigel and Louis Patler said in their book by the same title, "If it ain't broke, break it." Unfortunately, because
the old model seemed to be working so well, we didn't address its flaws. A similar old saw says, "If it ain't broke, don't
fix it." Well it is broke! And we must fix it.
Relationships: A sure thing
The easiest response to these changes is for veterinarians to compete on price. Coupons, rebates and manufacturer discounts
to veterinarians may all bring prices down to a competitive level, but coupons and rebates are inconvenient. And relying on
veterinary practices to pass on manufacturer discounts? Well, we'll see.
The only true differentiator between us and growing number of alternative product resources is the veterinarian-client relationship,
a tool that's been too long neglected. A great deal of energy is currently being put forth to help veterinarians better convey
their commitment and their knowledge. But it might be too little too late. Many veterinarians have sacrificed client and customer
relationships, and customer loyalty has eroded. And relationships are much harder to rebuild than they are to build.
As a profession we must focus on who we are, what we know and what we want to do for each pet and pet owner. What we don't
want to do is put ourselves in a position where we are perceived as being resistant to more pets having greater access to
the medications we recommend in our practices. That is an indefensible position.
Dr. Paul is a veterinary consultant and a founding member and former executive director/CEO of the Companion Animal Parasite Council.
He has served as president of the American Animal Hospital Association. He lives in Anguilla in the British West Indies.