Grooming feline practitioners in business savvy

Veterinarians team with NCVEI to refine analytic, communication skills
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Many feline practitioners are subscribing to the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues' credo that sound practice economics is the underpinning of quality patient care.

In a presentation at the American Association of Feline Practitioners' fall conference in Chicago this past November, NCVEI Chief Executive Officer Howard E. Rubin was pleased to report that more than 250 feline-only practices are sharing their benchmarking data with the commission. Feline data are also coming in from what the NCVEI classifies as "small animal mixed practices."

To give the numbers some context, the AVMA database indicates that 469 AVMA members classify themselves as veterinarians in "feline practice (exclusive)."

"We're thrilled (because AAFP) is among the first ... (species groups) that are working with the National Commission, and I hope that the other allied groups take on the same approach that you folks have done," Rubin said.

The NCVEI is endeavoring to change the culture of the profession so that it embraces the concept that profitability is necessary not only for career satisfaction but also for another important end—the ability to deliver quality patient care.

Incomes for companion animal practice are up 62 percent—or 41 percent, adjusted for inflation—since the NCVEI was formed in 2000, but Rubin acknowledged that swine and equine practitioners' incomes are slightly higher.

The commission's three key solutions for improving the veterinary economy lie in empirical evaluations of the skills, knowledge, aptitude, and attitude (or life skills) in the veterinary community; the pricing of veterinary services and products; and the benchmarking of operations in veterinary hospitals.

Rubin's primary purpose at the AAFP conference was to appeal to even more feline practitioners to use the online benchmarking tools. Introduced by the NCVEI about three and a half years ago, the tools now reach more than 11,000 practices representing almost 48,000 veterinarians.

"The early part of (2006), it's our expectation that feline-only results would be a separate category on the NCVEI site," Rubin announced.

After entering data on their practices, owners receive instant feedback on which quartile their hospital falls in for 38 benchmark categories ranging from finances, client satisfaction, and staffing behaviors to marketing and communications. The benchmarking site illustrates how the most successful practices achieve their results.

Rubin shared graphs profiling feline practices in several ways, first in terms of location. Of the practices involved in benchmarking, 39 percent are in urban locations, about 59 percent are in suburban locations, and about 3 percent are in rural locations. Feline practice respondents tend to have fewer veterinarians than the average number in practices overall. "You can see that feline practitioners tend to be a little bit smaller in gross revenue, but in many respects, they have a higher profitability on a net basis than general practitioners," Rubin noted.

The NCVEI is committed to providing data and analytic help for more effective decision making involving not only practice operations, Rubin underscored, but also areas such as client and colleague relationships. Resources for sharing techniques and experiences are an essential component of the Web site,

"One of the things you'll get from working with the NCVEI is how those practitioners are dealing with tough situations and how each one of you comes up with methodologies to deal with problems you're faced with day in, day out, so you don't feel like you're in practice all by yourself," Rubin said.

Client and co-worker communication is just such an area and an NCVEI priority. Rubin cited four essentials for effective communications: nonverbal communication, open-ended questioning, reflective listening, and empathy. Eighty percent of communication is nonverbal, making it vital that veterinarians understand it, he said.

Turning to the pricing of veterinary services and products, Rubin described the NCVEI's online benchmarking tools for pricing, which help practices evaluate the 20 fee categories that are most representative in companion animal practice.

Bar charts: Where Revenue Comes From"With the kind of response we've been getting from feline practitioners, we're looking forward over the coming years to having (online benchmarking tools for pricing) that are more feline oriented, and we believe that will be the next theme of our development," he said.

A recent experience Rubin related about the value of the online benchmarking tools for pricing involved a good friend who is a successful practitioner in one of the wealthiest counties in the United States. After much prodding, this already thriving veterinarian agreed to enter his practice information on the NCVEI benchmarking site. His fees were well over the average in almost every category—except cystocentesis, a procedure for which he discovered he was charging a fee that was half the national average. The previous year, he had performed 3,000 of the procedures, so the differential took on significance.

"But this is really not a story about a very successful, wealthy veterinarian raising his price on cystos from $10 to $20," Rubin said. "The effect of these tools at NCVEI is to provide analytical information specifically for veterinarians so they can have more than a seat-of-the-pants approach to not only set prices but also to look at their operations and how they communicate with clients."

Rubin concluded by sharing more information the NCVEI has collected from feline practices and relating it to practices throughout the companion animal community.

  • Feline-only practitioners perform more diagnostic procedures on average than their colleagues in companion animal practice
  • Feline practice owners, whether sole owners or partners, tend to spend a few more hours on management than companion animal practice owners as a whole
  • As a whole, feline practice owners work more hours than companion animal practitioners, but feline practice associates work slightly fewer hours than companion animal associates
  • The percentage of feline practice associates paid on a production basis grew from 38 percent in 2004 to 43 percent in 2005
  • Especially when they are small, feline-only practices tend to have more graduate, credentialed technicians
  • Consultation fees charged by feline practitioners tend to be slightly higher
  • The average transaction charges in feline practices across-the-board are up at least 13 percent since last year's AAFP meeting