Enjoying and prospering in equine practice

Business practices study offers strategies for success
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By Susan C. Kahler

"It's almost as if once you get the satisfaction of working on horses, you don't want to work on anything else," said Dr. Jay M. Donecker, referring to a statistic from recent the AVMA-Pfizer Business Practices Study during his July 17 AVMA convention presentation on being a successful equine practitioner. Dr. Donecker is senior veterinarian at Pfizer Equine.

The talk was part of a daylong series sponsored by Pfizer on strategies for success in equine, companion animal, and food animal practice. The strategies were developed on the basis of the study's findings about business practices that correlate with higher incomes and resources developed in response to those findings. 

Demographic and environmental factors influence prosperity. Location is a factor; practices in the Midwest, for example, generally report lower revenues. Male equine practitioners earn considerably more than their female counterparts, although Dr. Donecker does not believe this is a conscious practice.

Equine practitioners represent the second-highest practice income group, after swine practitioners, he said. The fact that two thirds of equine veterinarians are practice owners helps explain a dichotomy between their salaries and the lower salaries of associates. New graduates are discouraged when they learn they will make just $18 an hour, the speaker said.

To increase income, equine practitioners can work faster or charge more, Dr. Donecker said. Or, they can consider implementing some of the action items developed from the business practices study.

For instance, developing one's employees correlates with higher income. Only 40 percent of respondents to the study measured employee productivity, and 49 percent promoted employee longevity. Incremental increases of 2 percent to 4 percent that are tied to employee productivity will promote longevity. Writing job descriptions for all employees, providing clear and timely feedback, and conducting written and oral performance evaluations each year also enhances personnel management.

Assign new graduates to do things right out of practice that will generate income, he urged. Send them out in the truck to vaccinate and establish relationships with clients, for example.

"If you do (all) this, it can make a $30,000 difference," Dr. Donecker noted.

Do as little of the nonveterinary work as possible, assigning that to appropriate practice staff. Ambulatory work generates the lowest income, so cultivate a clientele that comes to the clinic.

Client relations is another important business area. Sending new clients a welcome letter goes a long way in cultivating their business; the letter could include an emergency plan for their horse, when you're sharing calls with other colleagues or practices, and which days are full-service during breeding season.

Other business practices include increasing fees incrementally, reducing expenses—but not excessively, which could adversely affect income, improving inventory, and offering new services. The AVMA-Pfizer study found that equine veterinarians expected to generate increased revenue by introducing ultrasound, prepurchase examinations, dentistry, diagnostics, reproduction, alternative medicine, and preventive herd health services.

Dr. Donecker had a strong response to the annual dental reminder cards he sent to his equine clients, when he was part-owner of a mixed practice in North Carolina. Gearing up the dentistry part of a practice is the first place he recommends starting, since horses often live 28 or 30 years. Lameness examinations would be another area.

Having a business orientation and capitalizing on industry trends is a key management tool. Power dentistry is a trend that's important and profitable, for example. "And improving negotiating skills is the number one income driver," Dr. Donecker said.

A CD is available from local Pfizer representatives that provides resources such as key performance indicators for equine, companion animal, and food animal practitioners; sample job descriptions and performance evaluations; and client survey handouts.