A spur to action for practice owners

AAEP pushing for better handling of resources, succession plans
Published on February 01, 2017
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At first glance, preliminary numbers from a survey of American Association of Equine Practitioners members—conducted by the AVMA Veterinary Economics Division—show a perfect match.

Half of associates expressed interest in buying a practice, and 55 percent of owners would like to sell part or all of their practice even before retirement. Further, 76 percent of owners say they would like to sell at the time of their planned retirement. However, 80 percent of owners do not have a buy-sell agreement in place and 36 percent of owners aren’t sure who will purchase the ownership interest.

AAEP members will have to wait until later this year to see the final report, but the leadership presented early data during the association’s 62nd Annual Convention, Dec. 3-7, in Orlando, Florida.

Other survey data of AAEP members revealed that 60 percent of respondents were aged 30-50, while 40 percent were over 50. Plus, 58 percent were female and 42 percent male. In addition, 51 percent had graduated since 2000 and 34 percent before 1990. And 42 percent have one or more children under age 18. Unsurprisingly, the survey found that the veterinary profession as a whole earns more than the equine profession, and the final results should help explain why, said Dr. R. Reynolds Cowles Jr., the recently installed AAEP president. The final report also asked about externships, internships, and residencies; employment; staff use; income; services provided; practice performance and succession planning; educational debt; and health and wellness.

Attendance at the American Association of Equine Practitioners’ 62nd Annual Convention, Dec. 3-7, 2016, in Orlando, Florida, comprised 5,471 veterinary professionals, students, guests, and exhibitors from across the U.S., Canada, and 46 other countries. (Photos courtesy of AAEP)

“There’s so much gold to be mined. The results will drive a lot of decisions and programming after the full analysis comes out. We’ll be able to better characterize segments of equine practices that we might not have had a good handle on before,” he said.

From awareness to action

But Dr. Cowles, who acted as program chair for the meeting as part of his responsibilities as the incoming president, didn’t wait to take action. He and the Educational Programs Committee made sure a plethora of continuing education sessions at the meeting focused on the business of practice. Sessions under this topic’s track were grouped under the following themes:

  • Setting Yourself Up for Success, with topics such as the value of mentorship, parenthood, and practice transitions, and considerations for veterinarians when expanding a family.
  • Succession Planning as a Business Strategy, with topics such as how to finance practice ownership, and the nuts and bolts of succession planning.
  • Opportunities Beyond Clinical Practice, with topics such as going into the ministry, retiring, and unexpected transitions such as becoming disabled.
  • Transitions for Practice Growth, with topics such as when to add new equipment and services, going from an ambulatory practice to a brick-and-mortar one, and moving from being an associate to owner or partner.
  • Words of Wisdom from Everyday Practice, including how much to pay a new associate, taking the plunge into practice ownership, and composting as a viable equine carcass disposal method.

When it comes to practice management, Dr. Cowles has a lot of experience. He says it’s not only about increased awareness but also doing something about it.

“Certainly, people are doing a better job at managing their practices, but there are still plenty of folks out there who don’t know how to read a balance sheet, practicing by the seat of their pants like we did before we realized there was a better way to do it,” Dr. Cowles said. “Key to increasing the basic income of practices is certainly better management of resources and finances. Hopefully, this study (by the AVMA) will look at that. I do think, as a whole, we’ve raised the level of awareness, but not always the level of action as far as business practices are concerned.”

Helping the helpers

In all, the meeting offered more than 130 hours of continuing education. Another popular CE track, titled “Emergency Industry Issues—When a Rescue Goes Bad,” focused on legal considerations, equine veterinarians’ role in potential cases of animal abuse, and working with rescue organizations to establish best practices for early problem-solving as well as safety nets.

That last issue garnered more attention with a number of high-profile cases last year in which local authorities in Kentucky, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Virginia seized horses from rescue organizations that were ill-equipped to handle the horses’ unending need for their services.

“It’s a constant issue,” Dr. Cowles said. “People have great intent to rescue and care for horses, but then they become underfunded and run out of money, and then it becomes a worse situation than where the horses came from in the beginning.” Often, these horses suffer from a lack of food and water and insufficient veterinary care.

Equine rescue groups can fail in their mission for many reasons, but the primary reasons are poor understanding of nonprofit structure and management, lack of knowledge of equine care, insufficient funding, overcommitment, and the inability to turn away a needy horse, according to a summary of the presentation given by Jennifer Williams, PhD, an equine behaviorist. She’s also co-founder and president of Bluebonnet Equine Humane Society in College Station, Texas. Although several organizations have published guidelines for horse rescues—including the AAEP (PDF), the Animal Welfare Institute and the Humane Society of the United States (jav.ma/AWIHSUSguidelines), and the University of California-Davis (jav.ma/ucdavisguidelines)—most rescue organizations are not aware of these standards and, thus, do not follow them, she said.

Emergency and critical care along with dentistry were emphasized at AAEP’s 2016 meeting. Interactive, hands-on learning sessions including labs have also started to play a larger role at AAEP meetings.

“Veterinarians can help alleviate the suffering inadvertently caused by well-meaning rescuers by working with these organizations to insure they follow good equine husbandry and nonprofit management guidelines. When local rescues become problem rescues, veterinarians can work with local law enforcement; other veterinarians; and stable, sustainable rescue organizations to assist the horses,” according to the proceedings.

Dr. Cowles also noted that veterinarians must protect themselves from legal exposure in these cases. He himself was involved in an incident in Virginia this past year in which it wasn’t initially clear whether the rescuers and veterinarians could be arrested by the land owner for trespassing.

“You have to know your limitations. State laws are evolving and will continue to change,” he said. “It’s also important for local animal control to be educated so everyone can do better for the horse.”