The golden age of veterinary medicine

Timing is right to reap benefits, but companion animal practitioners are missing out
Published on April 15, 2001
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Veterinary competence has never been stronger, and the unique bond between people and their pets is fast becoming a cultural norm.

Dr. John W. Albers
Dr. John W. Albers

These forces have converged to form what AAHA executive director, Dr. John W. Albers calls "the golden age of veterinary medicine," when consumers are willing to spend more on their companion animals. But rather than enjoying the benefits of practicing veterinary medicine in so unprecedented a period, many veterinarians fail to reap the harvest.

"All of us should be on top of the world, but unfortunately, we're not," Dr. Albers said. Compared with similarly educated professionals, the average annual income of veterinarians ranks well below podiatrists, chiropractors, pharmacists, and even physical therapists.

Veterinarians themselves are the main obstacle to financial success, Dr. Albers explained. "I really believe that we are the biggest barriers to achieving financial and economic success in our practices," he said.

His assessment, "The state of companion animal practice—and what lies ahead," was offered during the management track of the association's 68th annual meeting, March 10-14, in San Antonio. More than 2,400 people attended the meeting.

The Megastudy, the most comprehensive economic analysis of the US veterinary profession, was the basis for much of Dr. Albers' address. The AAHA, AVMA, and Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges had commissioned the study. The study authors cited a number of factors contributing to the lag in veterinary income.

Following the Megastudy's release in 1999, the nonprofit National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues was formed to tackle these issues head-on. In the meantime, the AAHA has sought to illustrate for its more than 22,000 veterinary care providers that the right elements are in place for great opportunities.

The high caliber of veterinary skill and knowledge, combined with ongoing medical advances, has resulted in veterinarians being able to deliver quality health care to animals.

"We really believe that anything that can expand the longevity and wellness of people should be applied to pets," Dr. Albers said. "And, fortunately, we are at a time in our history when our medical skills and knowledge and our ability to deliver quality of care allows us to meet the needs of society as they relate to animals."

The value people give to their pets is reflected in the advertisements used to sell not only pet food, but also a wide array of products and services that have nothing to do with animal health. To make his point, Dr. Albers showed television commercials and print ads where animals were used to market arthritis medication, computer hardware, automobiles, and recliners.

Advertising companies are tapping into the bond between humans and their pets, he said, as is Hollywood. Precocious pets are also turning up in movies and on television shows, as are veterinarians. NBC's "Providence" features a veterinarian character, and the Discovery Channel has the popular, reality-based "Emergency Vets."

"People value not only animals, but we are also respected and valued for the services that we bring to the animals of the world," Dr. Albers noted.

An additional indicator: consumer spending on veterinary services shows no signs of softening. A number of corporate and professional studies on the spending habits of pet owners over the past 20 years show people tend not to be price sensitive when it comes to their pets. People will pay for quality care and service for their pets, which are no longer valued primarily for practical utility, but for companionship.

But many veterinarians think clients will not stand a price increase, no matter how small. This unfounded belief, compounded by practitioners' tendency to discount their services, affects the entire practice team and could ultimately compromise the quality of veterinary care delivered, Dr. Albers said.

Price adjustments allow practice owners to invest in their animal hospitals through higher wages and better benefits for staff, continuing education, new equipment, and more client services. "Economic success is about investing in your practice to improve the level of care that you can provide," he said.

Other reasons often cited by veterinarians for their unwillingness to increase revenue are too much competition and staffing problems. However, consumer studies show clients are loyal to their veterinarians, and they will accept a price increase if they believe their animals are receiving quality care. And in most cases, staffing problems are a consequence of inadequate pay.

Dr. Albers suggested five ways to grow practice revenue. Veterinarians can invest in their practices in a number of ways, including acquiring new equipment and adding services for both client and patient. This can be as simple as a kid's corner in the office waiting room, or offering a course in dog agility training. "Clients want excellent care for their pets and high quality service for themselves," he said.

Increasing compliance with annual health examinations, vaccinations, and other health care recommendations is also a source of revenue. The AAHA's own research found that in a typical practice, fewer than 75 percent of clients are up-to-date with their veterinarians' recommendations. Improving compliance is a practical way of increasing revenue without costly expenditures. Key to success in this is effectively communicating with the client the importance of a given service.

"The point of all this is that our job as veterinarians is to be advocates of what's best for the pet," Dr. Albers said. "We are the ones who need to tell the client what is in the best interest of the pet in order to maintain a long and healthy life."

Next is setting fees that reflect the costs of delivering a service. To avoid the charge of encouraging price-fixing, Dr. Albers noted the AAHA is strongly committed to the position that veterinarians should set their fees independently.

Veterinarians should consider doing pro bono work, that is, offering their services free of charge to poor clients or providing care to animals at a shelter. They must determine how much charity work they can accommodate. The point is to not only satisfy their altruistic drive, but also to overcome the pernicious habit of giving away services to people who can pay.

"The idea here is give your services away to the people who need it, charge everyone else," he said. "This notion of free counseling and giving away services when people aren't asking for that is crazy."

And finally, veterinarians should take a portion of their revenue and annually reinvest in expanding client and patient services. Given the principle of compound interest, such investments in the practice should increase revenue.

The cumulative effect of incorporating these principles should be an economically successful profession that delivers quality health care to animals, and remains a career choice that continues to attract the best and brightest. Not to mention, "Do it for yourself," Dr. Albers said. "You provide such great service to animals of the world. You deserve economic success."