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December 15, 2020

Pivot or perish: Veterinary leaders talk industry trends

E-commerce, telemedicine, and other innovations making their way into clinics because of consumer demand
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Powerful forces are influencing change in the veterinary landscape. Pet and livestock owners are demanding more from veterinarians; there’s growing interest in making the profession more diverse, equitable, and inclusive; and technology continues to evolve, affecting medicine, goods, and services alike.

Matthew J. Salois, PhD, chief economist at the AVMA, pointed to e-commerce, automation, and telemedicine as well as diversity, equity, and inclusion as particularly important trends in the profession. He and other leaders in the veterinary industry spoke on these topics during the annual AVMA Economic Summit, held virtually Oct. 26-28 and attended by more than 410 individuals.

Illustration: A human form struggling to push an obstacle forward

Be where the client is

To be successful, veterinarians need to adapt with agility and adopt innovation and technology to thrive. Increased collaboration among the entire ecosystem of the veterinary industry will be necessary to successfully navigate the tides of change. These thoughts were shared during a roundtable discussion among veterinary leaders representing companies and organizations dedicated to animal nutrition, diagnostics and analytics, pharmaceuticals, and the distribution of animal health products.

Kathy Turner, corporate vice president and chief marketing officer of Idexx, said her company has seen an interesting impact on diagnostics during the pandemic.

With curbside check-in becoming the new norm at veterinary clinics and less time spent discussing pets’ health status in the examination room with clients, the company has found veterinarians relying more on diagnostics to assess each patient’s health on the first visit and determine a more definitive treatment.

Matt Salois, PhD

If we are going to grow and nurture this profession into what we want it to be, if we are going to weather the storms of life, if we are going to become all that we can become, we can’t do it alone. We have to be dedicated to each other. There is no rulebook for this. There is not a set of instructions on how to transform yourself or build more meaningful collaborations.

Matthew J. Salois, PhD, AVMA chief economist

“In the past, veterinarians may have relied more on the client’s assessment of their pet, they might not have run a full diagnostic panel, or they took a wait-and-see attitude to see if the pet gets better on its own, especially when the condition might not appear to be critical—all to save clients money,” Turner said. “But these days, pet owners don’t want to come back for a second visit. They want their pet’s health condition addressed immediately. And frankly, with practices being so busy and, in some cases, short staffed clinicians also don’t want to see the same pet twice for the same condition.”

She added that diagnostics are a service that can only be performed by a veterinary professional and, thus, can be an effective way for them to build durable revenue streams. Turner mentioned that the Vet Connect software from Idexx allows clinicians to review diagnostic results from home and share those with clients via email, a service they may already have with their own physicians.

Doug Brooks, vice president of business development at Compassion-First Pet Hospitals, said one of the biggest trends that will transform the industry and will require collaboration from veterinarians is that there are going to be more medications and other products available outside veterinary channels.

“With the advent of Chewy and Amazon getting into this space as well as Walmart opening practices at some of their facilities, I really think this increased access is actually going to be really good for the brick-and-mortar vet, whether it’s changing the focus to telehealth and how we get clients to be seen for initial consultation before they come in or are there opportunities to use technology to diagnose pets rather than having them come into the practice?”

He further emphasized that more veterinary clients are looking for ways to get stuff done online.

“They’re sitting at home making health care decisions. Kroger delivers to my door. It’s only 2 miles way, but it’s easier for me to dial my phone. Veterinarians not focused on e-commerce will be missing out,” he said.

For those reluctant to do so, he advises them to change their mindset about how profitable offering online products and services needs to be.

“A little bit of something is a whole lot better than a whole lot of nothing. The increased volume will make up for the increase in price,” Brooks said. “Crumbs are still bread.”

Bob Betz, vice president of sales for Royal Canin, said diversity, equity, and inclusion are also pervasive topics that require addressing in the veterinary profession, inside and out.

Externally, minorities are veterinarians’ clients. “We have to communicate in ways that work for them. We have to put ourselves in our clients’ shoes and talk to them and understand them, make them feel comfortable coming to us,” he said.

Internally, the profession has evolved from being nearly all white male to now more than half female and will continue to trend that way. Race- and ethnicitywise, it still has a ways to go, which means making more concerted efforts to reach and connect with different populations.

“Whether it’s a clinic or pet food company, if you want to recruit the best talent, they have to feel comfortable with you and you have to know where to look for them,” Betz said. Royal Canin asked, “Why aren’t we getting more diverse candidate pools?”

The company needed to go to historically Black colleges and universities. “And looking deeper at the schools we were recruiting at, we weren’t getting the full diversity of the population just by how we were showing up,” Betz said, because of how the company advertised itself.

Royal Canin also has been working to promote more women in leadership positions by sponsoring the Women’s Veterinary Leadership Forum.

Betting on new technology

Rick DeLuca
Rick DeLuca, executive vice president and global president of Merck Animal Health, gives the featured keynote on the first day of the virtual AVMA Economic Summit.

If Rick DeLuca had one piece of advice to give, it would be this: Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Whether that’s doing something new or challenging once a day, week, or month, the executive vice president and global president of Merck Animal Health said he continues to push himself. “If you’re not uncomfortable, you’re not growing.”

He gave the featured keynote, “Transformation in Action: Leadership Lessons From Rick DeLuca,” on the first day of the AVMA Economic Summit. He was joined by Dr. Christine Royal, director of veterinary professional services for Merck’s U.S. equine and companion animal business unit, and Dr. Salois, the AVMA chief economist, in a Q&A session on Oct. 26.

DeLuca said technology is and will continue to be a big driver of transformation in the industry.

“It’s our job as a company to source data from everything we do,” he said. “If you don’t do that, you’re doing a disservice to the future.”

Further, whether it is collecting information from dogs or beef cattle wearing tracking collars or from clinical work, gathering that information “will make product offerings better, allow our colleagues and partners to have more time and better compliance, and provide longer lives and better treatments for the animals they take care of.”

He referenced Merck Animal Health Intelligence, announced in early October and led by Dr. Jeroen van de Ven—a specialized operating unit that encompasses the brands of Allflex Livestock Intelligence, Sure Petcare, and Biomark, which provide digital technology for animal identification, animal monitoring, and smart data management for livestock and companion animals; Vaki, a company focused on equipment for monitoring fish farming and conservation of wild fish; and the most recent acquisitions, IdentiGen and Quantified Ag.

IdentiGen’s technology combines each species’ unique DNA and data analytics to provide an animal traceability product called DNA TraceBack that applies to cattle, aquaculture, swine, and poultry. Quantified Ag is a data and analytics company that monitors cattle body temperature and movement to detect illness early.

He said the creation of Merck Animal Health Intelligence will help shift the company from being known for selling biopharmaceutical products to being “a real solutions provider.”

What veterinarians do best

Practitioners and veterinary staff members remain so busy running veterinary clinics, particularly during the pandemic, that the idea of huge new undertakings such as creating an online store for the clinic or implementing telemedicine may seem overwhelming.

Brooks said, “One thing we need to be cognizant of is, with less staff on hand, veterinary technicians are being asked to do more. Everyone in the veterinary hospital is attuned to burnout. In mid-COVID times, we need to be even more attuned to stress levels of the doctors and support staff. It has definitely increased, especially as the (patient) volume has gone up.”

So how do clinics pivot in the middle of uncertain times? Dr. Salois said in his keynote speech that to remain adaptable, people need to have principles that allow them to respond to the changes coming at them (see story). More specifically, the way to go is to maintain excellent customer service—be it in person or virtual—as well as make incremental changes and collaborate with others.

He gave the example of concerns he’s heard from veterinarians about Chewy announcing its telehealth service, Connect With a Vet, in late October. Through the service, pet owners can chat with veterinarians and get answers “to some of the most commonly asked questions,” as well as “receive advice” and “discuss concerns they might have regarding the health and wellness of their pet,” according to Chewy.

Dr. Salois said clients still don’t know what to make of telemedicine because they’re trying to figure out how it works in their own health care.

“But they do want to be connected to their veterinarian. Not a random veterinarian in their community or nationally. They want their vet.”

Later, he added: “What I hear from vets is ‘I can’t compete. I can’t be Amazon. I can’t be Chewy.’ You’re right, you can’t. But Amazon and Chewy can’t be you. The veterinarian has the most valuable asset in front of her, which is the client. You have proximity, trust, and a rapport that Chewy could never capture that you do so well. You think about products and practice and what Chewy and Amazon are doing. But think about what you do best and that will always put you in the No. 1 place.”


Sessions and resources from the AVMA Economic Summit will be available at AVMA Axon until Jan. 30, 2021, for those who register for the event.