Study to investigate reasons behind drop in veterinary client visits

Oct 01, 2010

Table 1
National Report — Client visits are falling. While a new study from the National Commission of Veterinary Economic Issues (NCVEI), Brakke Consulting and Bayer hopes to better understand the trend, there is plenty of evidence documenting it.

Table 2
According to Dr. Karen Felsted, executive director of NCVEI, the trend is happening when animal ownership continues to climb. And if you consider the impact long term to the market, it could spell trouble, Felsted says.

"We have to look at this from a pre-recession and post-recession perspective too," Felsted adds, especially since most veterinary practices are operating in a slow-growth economy. (See related story "Veterinary coalition to target combat drop in client visits".)

Table 3
"AVMA definitely has the most robust data on this, and they showed two things (from its 2006 survey) a decline in total veterinary visits, and that was primarily due to a drop in cat visits."

Since then, the evidence just keeps mounting, Felsted says. In 2007, the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) reported a decline in median new clients per veterinarian (Table 4). In late 2008 and early 2009, a DVM Newsmagazine survey showed a steep decline in the estimates of patient visits in a survey taken at the height of the stock-market slide (Table 2). AAHA also followed this trend and documented noteworthy declines in this year's 2010 State of the Industry Report. The AAHA survey showed patient visits dropped for the first half of 2009 and began to increase in June. But patient visits only rebounded to January 2009 levels. AAHA's survey also shows that patient visits were essentially flat from 2008 to 2009. Overall, average client transactions increased less than 1 percent during the same time period, AAHA reports.

Table 4
When comparing financial data from 2008 to 2009, NCVEI showed gross revenues dropping between 1-2 percent. Transaction numbers dropped 2-3 percent.

It is important to note that there are large variations between markets and practices, Felsted says. In fact, one-third of the practices were up, another third were flat and the remaining one-third were down. Some of those practices were down significantly, Felsted adds.

Fast-forward to 2010. VetInsite reports a kind of schizophrenic trend in patient numbers. In fact, VetInsite's data show a 6 percent decline in patient numbers in February 2010, rebounding to 2 percent growth just a month later, and then dropping again through May 2010.

In an NCVEI Quick Poll, practitioners were asked: How did your practice's revenue for the first quarter in 2010 compared to the first quarter in 2009? The results showed that 26.6 percent showed an increase of greater than 5 percent; 28.2 percent increased from 1-5 percent; 12.2 percent were flat; 20.8 percent declined 1-5 percent; and 12.2 percent declined by more than 5 percent.

If you take a look at all the numbers in aggregate, "everyone who has collected data on the recession shows declining traffic. I think it's a pretty safe assumption that the market overall is looking at declining visits," Felsted says.