What my survey says
Over time, I've informally surveyed hundreds of veterinarians, and fewer than one in 10 have even read the summary of the
Bayer Veterinary Usage Study released in 2011. Red flags have been flapping like pennants at a used car lot for some time
as indicated by organized medicine and studies by dvm360. Yet veterinarians seem focused on the role of the economy, competition and the fact that "cats don't like to go to the vet."
Those same informal surveys are even more disappointing when I ask about the AVMA Veterinary Workforce Report. Everybody knows
"business is slow," but few realize the breadth of the problem. I'm reminded of all the people who go to Las Vegas or other
gambling meccas. At the end of the trip, everyone says they "broke about even." Really? Many veterinarians say they are seeing
"about the same" number of patients as last year. Really? Take a look at your appointment book. Not many years ago appointments
were scheduled every 15 minutes and it took days for clients to get an appointment. Today most practices provide appointments
of 30 minutes or longer, and appointment schedules are hardly ever full. I suspect getting an appointment at the veterinary
clinic is now easier than getting one at the hair salon!
How should we respond?
The first thing we need to do is to acknowledge the issue. While some veterinarians are up to their necks, many are feeling
their socks getting wet, and as a whole the profession is "knee-deep in the big muddy." We can blame the economy. We can blame
competitors. We can blame the manufacturers, the veterinary colleges, the legislatures and so on. But believing something
doesn't make it true, and blaming others won't change the situation.
While veterinary revenues have been increasing recently, this follows on the tail of several years of decline. Therefore we're
really only marginally better off than we were at the onset of the financial downturn. From my perspective the greatest hope
we have is to find the fixable leaks and plug them.
Start by actively pursuing and promoting feline visits—do it now! The American Association of Feline Practitioners has an
excellent model to improve the veterinary experience of cats and their owners. It's beyond the scope of this column to discuss
specific recommendations, but read it and, more importantly, take the recommended steps. Don't stop at putting a towel on
the exam table and hanging a couple of posters.
Be sensitive to pet owners' financial concerns. U.S. households spend more each year on pets than on alcohol, furniture, landline
phone service or men's and boys' clothing, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data collected by the Census Bureau.
I've long been concerned that our ability to provide care was being outpaced by the cost of care. In fact, few of our own
employees can afford our services without subsidy. What does that say?
We all want to provide the best care possible, but it's important to recognize that not everyone can afford or even wants
the best care possible. Not all consumers will buy a BMW. That's why Ford makes the Fiesta. Support some form of pet health
insurance and help clients budget their pet healthcare expenses by providing a wellness plan.
But most importantly, demonstrate the importance and value of your services. Position yourself and your practice as a trusted
advisor, not a source of products that have become largely commoditized. Advocate for care rather than recommending products.
Treat all clients as if they really matter. This will keep them coming back and keep our profession's world spinning—for at
least a little while longer.
Dr. Michael Paul is a nationally known speaker and columnist and the principal of Magpie Veterinary Consulting. He lives in
the British West Indies.