Veterinary coalition to target drop in client visits

Veterinary coalition to target drop in client visits

Leaders call for unification at Banfield's Pet Healthcare Industry Summit
Oct 01, 2010

Portland, Ore. — He called for action. And it could trigger a profession-wide campaign to build client visits.

At presstime, a planning meeting is slated for November to bring leaders in practice and industry together in an attempt to carve out a series of strategies to help reverse a trend of dwindling client visits.

John Payne, CEO of Banfield, The Pet Hospital called on professional leaders to form a comprehensive strategy to build access to veterinary care.

"It's time to act," Payne told attendees at a recent Banfield Pet Healthcare Industry Summit, especially in light of sluggish economy and receding client visits.

While the National Commission of Veterinary Economic Issues (NCVEI), Brakke Consulting and Bayer are working on a survey to better understand factors around shrinking caseloads, Payne called on association leaders to start the dialogue now.

"We need data. But we need to act. We have to be able to pool our resources to have an impact," he told more than 100 leaders from associations, practice, animal-health manufacturers and other groups.

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The first major planning meeting is slated for November in either Topeka, Kan. or Kansas City and will be coordinated by Dr. Janet Donlin of Hill's Pet Nutrition, Payne and Dr. W. Ron DeHaven, CEO of the American Veterinary Medical Association. NCVEI also requested a leading role.

The idea, however, is to build a broad coalition of practitioners, animal-health companies and associations to advance a series of strategies to improve pet health and boost the number of times pet owners see their veterinarian.

And the economic environment over the next five years will be challenging. In a related presentation, Philip J. Romero, former chief economist of the state of California and dean of California State University's College of Business and Economics, says slow growth will be the mantra for the U.S. economy over the next five years.

It fuels the urgency to create an active and united front to build the animal-health market, Payne says. Other forces are at work on veterinary practices, too. The internet has forever changed distribution of veterinary products, and so have the players pushing to gain access including pharmacies and pet-specialty chains. Companies have opened up channel distribution, like this year's decision by Bayer Animal Health regarding Advantage. Even CVS is starting to host pet vaccination clinics in Florida.

It all signals pressure on veterinary hospitals, Payne says. Over the last several years, the veterinary profession has removed trip drivers, Payne says. "We have changed vaccine protocols, which is a good thing. We have products changing distribution. That's a trip driver. And you are seeing this constant bombardment of messages on television about saving money and saving a trip to the veterinarian. It's dangerous for this profession."

While he challenged the industry to "bet on the veterinary profession," he also called on leaders to back a campaign focused on improving access to veterinary care for pet owners.

"This is not about selling more drugs. It's about giving pets the care they need. I think companies have done a very good job at keeping us competitive. If we can keep it affordable, who better to monitor prescriptions and drug use than veterinarians?"

With that said, Payne acknowledges the U.S. economy is going through a major transition. And with it comes changes to the way small and large businesses need to operate. For years, the profession has pushed to raise fees, but Payne contends, it is contributing to this trend of fewer client visits. "If you graph it out, the number of visits is declining with an increase in pricing. That tells us that we are not convincing pet owners of the value proposition," Payne says.

Heartworm prevention represents a huge opportunity for practitioners, Payne says, especially if the profession can improve compliance rates and convert pet owners who are not currently giving heartworm preventives to their pets. In fact, he believes a wholesale push could offset losses from flea and tick product revenue for practices.

And while products represent a portion of a practice's finances, the key to success for veterinarians will be about prevention and protecting that pet's health throughout its life.

"Money is tight. It's tight in business. It's tight in our practice. And it's tight throughout the country," he says. It's going to take a concerted effort to move the needle and reverse the trend of smaller caseloads.

"As the world's greatest profession, we need to get this message out," Payne adds.