Banfield executive talks programs, policy, and practice

Dr. Molly McAllister, the company's new chief medical officer, acknowledges its impact on the profession at many levels as one of the largest employers of veterinarians
Published on
information-circle This article is more than 3 years old
Dr. McAllister
Dr. Molly McAllister is the new chief medical officer of Banfield Pet Hospital. She started in her new position in June. (Courtesy of Banfield)

Dr. Molly McAllister believes in a better world for pets and thinks that every child who wants to be a veterinarian deserves to be one.

Dr. McAllister, chief medical officer of Banfield Pet Hospital, has been with the company for seven years. She entered her new role in June after Dr. Daniel Aja took on a new position as innovation director at Banfield.

JAVMA News caught up with Dr. McAllister after Banfield's Pet Healthcare Industry Summit, held Sept. 12 in Portland, Oregon, to discuss her new role and new offerings at Banfield, including its ASK program, a suicide prevention training tool the company launched in September. She also touched on the company's decision to pay veterinary technicians more and the Veterinary Nurse Initiative as well as Banfield's involvement in antimicrobial stewardship, disasters, and access to care. The following responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Q. What are some initial goals in your new position?

A. One of my primary goals as chief medical officer is to ensure we are creating an engaging and healthy workplace for veterinary professionals so they can focus on what they do best: providing quality medical care to pets.

Banfield has a unique electronic veterinary health record database that contains more than 30 million pet health records from the millions of pets that visit our hospitals each year. A second goal of mine is to ensure we are sharing our data, insights, and best practices broadly to help advance the profession as a whole and not only improve the care that pets receive but also better understand how we can achieve the outcomes that are most important for each pet and client's relationship and quality of life.

Q. Can you speak about the ASK program and what this means for the profession?

A. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found one in six veterinarians has considered or attempted suicide, and one in 10 suffers from severe psychological distress. In short, the veterinary industry is in the midst of a serious mental health crisis.

One of my primary goals as chief medical officer is to ensure we are creating an engaging and healthy workplace for veterinary professionals.

Timed to coincide with National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month in September, Banfield announced a new suicide-prevention training called ASK: assess, support, and know. We designed ASK, the first of its kind, specifically for veterinary professionals to give them tools to recognize and address emotional distress and suicidal thoughts in themselves and others.

Because of the harrowing statistics, we also committed to close our more than 1,000 hospitals across the country for two hours each by Jan. 6, 2020, to facilitate interactive mental health and well-being training for our more than 19,000 hospital associates.

As the nation's largest general veterinary practice, we feel a responsibility to support the entire industry in addressing this mental health crisis, so we also pledged to make ASK available as a free resource to the profession and all U.S. veterinary colleges by Jan. 6, 2020.

ASK is just one piece of our holistic health and well-being approach, and we will continue to develop programs, tools, benefits, and services that address our people's needs.

Q. Access to veterinary care has received more attention lately. How does Banfield reach out to and serve low-income owners?

A. At Banfield Pet Hospital and the Banfield Foundation, we believe all pets deserve access to veterinary care regardless of their circumstance.

Each year, Banfield and the foundation team up with nonprofit organizations to host more than 40 free preventive care clinics across the country that serve the homeless and other vulnerable populations of pet owners. The foundation donates medication, vaccines, and supplies to enable Banfield veterinarians to provide free veterinary services including core vaccines, wellness exams, heartworm testing and prevention, parasite and flea and tick prevention, as well as the opportunity to spend time with a veterinarian to answer questions and address concerns. In addition to preventive care clinics, Banfield offers a program called Help Overcome Pet Emergencies Funds. HOPE Funds enable qualifying low-income pet owners to apply for financial assistance in Banfield hospitals for pets that are experiencing life-threatening emergencies.

Another way we prioritize giving back to pets in need is through the foundation's Veterinary Assistance Grants, which provide nonprofit organizations the financial resources to implement and support programs that provide veterinary assistance to low-income pet owners. The foundation has five grant programs that enable veterinary care through nonprofit partners.

Since its inception four years ago, the foundation has awarded more than $7 million in grants impacting more than 3 million pets.

Q. Can you talk about the support Banfield provides after disasters?

A. On the heels of Superstorm Sandy in 2012, there was significant impact to some of our associates; however, we lacked an effective process to provide support to them in their time of greatest need. Out of that disaster was born the Banfield Better Together Fund. Banfield associates can make a tax-deductible donation to the fund, and any associate personally impacted by a disaster can apply for a tax-free grant to provide support for short-term, immediate needs such as temporary housing, food, and clothing. Since its inception, the BBTF has awarded more than $150,000 in grants and, in 2019, was expanded to also support associates who are impacted by domestic violence.

The foundation also offers Disaster Relief Grants, which provide immediate financial support to nonprofit organizations that either have been impacted directly by a disaster or are assisting with pet-related impact work. Most recently, the foundation funded more than $30,000 worth of medical supplies to help the veterinary teams in the Bahamas deliver care to pets impacted by Hurricane Dorian.

In addition, the Banfield Foundation funds disaster response vehicles in Florida, Louisiana, Texas, and South Carolina that give first responders the ability to do everything from deploy full-service veterinary care in the aftermath of a disaster to temporarily kennel pets whose owners must evacuate to shelters. Thus far in 2019, the foundation has already funded more than $110,000 in Disaster Relief Grants.

We recognize the value of licensed veterinary technicians and believe that when veterinary professionals get to practice at the top of their license, it results in engaged clients and teams that deliver high-quality, compassionate care to pets.

Q. Banfield came out as an early supporter of the Veterinary Nurse Initiative. Does it plan to change titles from veterinary technician to veterinary nurse? 

A. Banfield is a strong supporter of the Veterinary Nurse Initiative and its efforts to positively impact the practice of veterinary medicine by redefining the role of veterinary technicians, including proposing a nationwide standardization in title to registered veterinary nurse.

Variance in state practice acts and a lack of defined scope of practice, title protection, or title reciprocity for credentialed veterinary technicians across states means that nationwide title standardizations won't happen overnight; however, Banfield remains committed to supporting and investing in efforts to elevate and redefine this role as a practice and beyond.

Q. How much more are you paying veterinary technicians now than you had previously? How is that initiative going? What impact has it had on retention and otherwise?

A. At Banfield, we recognize the value of licensed veterinary technicians and believe that when veterinary professionals get to practice at the top of their license, it results in engaged clients and teams that deliver high-quality, compassionate care to pets.

Last year, we increased hourly pay for our veterinary technicians practicewide to support their financial health and commensurate with the market. We also tripled their continuing education allowance and expanded their learning opportunities. In addition, Banfield sponsors a program with Penn Foster College through which more than 2,000 Banfield associates who aspire to be veterinary technicians are currently enrolled. Recently, we expanded the program and invested in resources for all associates participating in the program to help them prepare for the Veterinary Technician National Exam.

Another way we are working toward strengthening the pipeline of veterinary technicians within the profession is through Banfield's new Veterinary Technician Externship Program. Through this program, veterinary technician students receive hands-on learning and coaching that they need to thrive in their new career, as well as school credit and, in some cases, compensation.

Since these changes have gone into effect, we've not only seen more veterinary technicians choosing to stay at Banfield, but we've also heard overwhelmingly positive anecdotal feedback that their needs and desires are being not just heard, but more importantly, acted on.

Q. How many veterinarians have taken part in Banfield's Veterinary Student Debt Relief Program? What is the average amount received per participant? How many have taken advantage of the refinancing option?

A. At Banfield, we know student debt can have a significant impact on the financial and thus mental and emotional well-being of veterinary professionals. Two years ago, we introduced an industry-leading Veterinary Student Debt Relief Program to help our doctors address this burden and support a holistic health and well-being approach for our associates.

The program includes three options for eligible doctors:

A monthly contribution of $150 paid by Banfield directly toward qualifying student loans.

A one-time $2,500 payment for each qualifying Banfield student program in which the doctor participated prior to graduating, for a maximum of $10,000.

A low-interest refinancing option with supplementary 0.25% interest-rate reduction from a third-party financial institution.

In the first year since launching the program, Banfield contributed more than $4 million toward helping our veterinarians pay off their student loans and enabled over $10 million in educational debt refinancing for associates. Today, over 50% of our more than 3,500 veterinarians are currently participating in at least one of the program options.

Q. What is Banfield's position on a reduced membership rate at veterinary associations for veterinarians who work at national chains such as Banfield? How does Banfield decide which veterinary associations to pay dues to on behalf of members?

A. When partnering with state VMAs, our goal is to create mutual partnerships that benefit our associates and the association. Several state VMAs offer practice discounts, and we ask VMAs to consider a discount when we are in partnership discussions depending on the number of Banfield associates in that state. We work to streamline and simplify the membership process as much as possible, including bulk enrollment and payment.

We also encourage our doctors to get involved with the VMA through volunteer roles and continuing education opportunities, along with various other valuable membership benefits. There are multiple factors we consider when identifying potential VMA partnerships, including but not limited to location of the VMA in relation to the number of Banfield veterinary professionals in that area.

Q. What is Banfield doing in regard to antimicrobial stewardship?

A. As the nation's largest general veterinary practice, we're committed to using our size and scale to advance knowledge in the veterinary profession. One critical way we bring this to life is through our annual Veterinary Emerging Topics Report, which leverages our unique data set and insights to analyze and share information with the profession to help advance veterinary medicine.

In 2017, we released the first VET Report focused on antimicrobial usage when treating common canine infections and how a lack of awareness of antimicrobial use guidelines was reflected in prescription patterns among companion animal veterinarians. Our 2018 VET Report was a continuation of the 2017 report and examined treatment of common feline bacterial infections. Given the additional challenges associated with treating cats and ensuring compliance with prescribed treatment plans, we found there is tremendous room for improvement with antimicrobial use in cats.

Antimicrobial resistance is a growing threat to public health, and companion animal practitioners have an important role to play in the responsible stewardship of these powerful and important drugs.

Q. With more women in the profession, are you considering offering paid maternity leave or child care credits? How do you currently help practitioners with work-life balance?

A. At Banfield, we've prioritized innovative programs and benefits such as our ASK training, Veterinary Student Debt Relief Program, and comprehensive health, welfare, and time-away benefits, as well as flexible schedules and 100% practice-paid partial income replacement for full-time associates to cover illness, pregnancy, and unexpected events in life. Additional offerings include child care subsidies, continuing education funds, Banfield-sponsored industry memberships, community volunteering programs, stress resilience and energy management programs, and a series of free counseling services for associates and their families through our Associate Assistance Program.

We are continuously reexamining our compensation and benefits packages to ensure they're not only competitive but also meeting our associates' needs and will continue to explore new ways to expand our benefit offerings in service of our associates' health and well-being.