What lies ahead

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Horse receiving dental work
Nonveterinary health care providers continue to perform services that compete with veterinarians’. The main areas where this occurs are equine dentistry, reproduction services, and complementary and alternative veterinary medicine.

Looking at the state of the horse industry is sometimes enough to leave equine veterinarians reaching for their own ulcer medication.

A big area of concern is the declining number of horses and horse owners.

In 2005, a study commissioned by the American Horse Council showed there were 9.2 million horses in the U.S. and 4.6 million horse owners. The size of the industry shrank 4.4 percent from 2005-2010, and today, it continues on that path.

“Horse owners in all segments are aging. Plus, it costs a lot to own a horse,” especially for those participating in competitions, said Dr. Eleanor Green, dean of the Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, during a presentation at the American Association of Equine Practitioners Annual Convention about the future of equine practice.

“Further add to that, equine events aren’t drawing as many spectators as they had in the past, there are fewer practicing equine veterinarians—who are deterred by economic pressures, and then there are alternative channels for products for clients from retailers. It’s not a pretty picture.”

But there are areas for improvement, she pointed out, and equine veterinarians can flourish by openly facing circumstances that affect the horse industry and equine veterinary medicine, deriving data-driven responses, and being open to new ideas.

First, Dr. Green said they need to remember that the public influences them, whether it’s through horse ownership or attendance at spectator events. This means veterinarians need to come together and proactively address welfare issues. Changing societal views of animals and urbanization have led to greater scrutiny of established and developing practices, she said.

Outside pressures may force equine veterinarians to change drug dispensing behaviors in coming years, according to Chris Ragland of Axxiom LLC.

Second, Dr. Green emphasized that equine veterinarians need to be innovative in their business models and find ways to attract young practitioners. She cited AVMA estimates that 122 new equine graduates are needed annually to maintain that segment of the veterinary workforce. In reality, only 37 or so are graduating annually.

Further, as of March 2011, AAEP membership consisted of 7,766 veterinarians and 1,697 veterinary students. Membership increases by 700 to 800 a year, Dr. Green said, but there is a comparable loss, primarily among recent graduates. Most often, they cite lack of job satisfaction as the reason for leaving equine practice. In fact, half of equine practitioners leave the field within the first five to 10 years, she said.

Likewise, half of all equine practices report difficulty retaining employees, according to an AAEP survey. It also found that 64 percent of respondents older than 60 were very satisfied with their work while only 29 percent under the age of 30 were very satisfied.

“There is a strong correlation to income levels, but other factors come into play as well,” Dr. Green said. Small animal medicine, by comparison, generally has higher starting salaries, less stress, less risk of injury, less emergency work, better working hours, and shorter, flexible schedules—all of which appeal to the younger generations.

“Younger equine practitioners are not lazy; they simply want balance in their lives, and being told they need to act more like older practitioners simply won’t cut it,” she said. Instead, Dr. Green suggested retraining clients to expect 24-hour quality care from any member of a team of qualified veterinarians.

Third, veterinarians may need to find new ways to deliver equine veterinary services, such as through remote medicine, telemedicine, or concierge medicine, in which the client pays an annual fee or retainer in exchange for enhanced care.

Chris Ragland, of Axxiom LLC, who also spoke during the forum, said consumer behavior has evolved to a point where consumers are better informed because they have easier access to information.

“There is a burden that exists for you to figure out what does that mean to your business model. How are you going to interact with clients who are very different today than they were in previous generations? ... There’s lots of pressure coming into your practice that will change how dispensing behaviors will be conducted over the next several years,” Ragland said, in reference to the Fairness to Pet Owners Act (H.R. 1406). The legislation would require veterinarians to provide clients with written prescriptions for all prescription drugs for pets, even if the client then asks the veterinarian to dispense the drugs, and to provide them with written notification of the option to fill prescriptions elsewhere.

Ragland said the legislation is symptomatic of how consumer demands are changing.

He said big-box stores want mostly drugs that people buy and use routinely, such as omeprazole, to become over-the-counter, but not vaccines, anesthetics, or anti-inflammatories.

“I think it (equine practice) will change the same way it did 15 or 20 years ago when the equine veterinarian dewormed a horse, and now we don’t. There’ll be things you don’t do anymore after things migrate over (to OTC),” Ragland said.

In wrapping up the discussion, Dr. Green said this is about perspective.

She reminded audience members of the prediction when the automobile was invented that the veterinary industry would cease to exist.

“It didn’t. It’s flourished; it’s just been different,” she said. “The world is changing around us, and we can flourish, but we need to change to do that and change our thinking, which needs to be data-driven, but interpreted correctly.”

She also cautioned against making sweeping conclusions and predictions in the face of the greatest recession since the Great Depression.

Dr. Green added that a big opportunity for growth in the equine industry is to create new possibilities for horse involvement without ownership. Other opportunities are to re-engage previous horse owners, help current horse owners increase their involvement, and embrace new horse owners.