Theft, vandalism, and break-ins: How veterinary clinics can protect against security breaches

Survey data from Veterinary Hospital Managers Association show varied responses to the safety issues that clinics can face

Picture this, in your clinic’s payroll program, a manager continually raises her salary without permission from the practice owner. The owner doesn’t regularly check payroll and doesn’t realize anything is wrong until the manager has stolen more than $100,000.

This horror story is more common than you think, and this specific case was handled by Veterinary Business Advisors Inc. (VBA). VBA offers legal, human resource, and practice management services to veterinary practices nationwide.

“If you’re not looking at your books, it could be a long time, or you may never know that somebody is doing that, especially if they’re in charge of their own payroll,” said Kellie Olah, practice management and human resource consultant at VBA.

A robber using a sledgehammer to break the glass of a business establishment.
While not as common as employee security breaches, external threats, such as robberies, vandalism, and break-ins, do occur at veterinary practices for various reasons.

Olah is also a certified veterinary practice manager, so she has a deep-rooted understanding of the risks that clinics face every day. Security breaches can result from an outside culprit or an internal source, such as a clinic employee.

Olah said, in her experience, the biggest security threats to veterinary clinics often come from inside the practice, whether that’s a veterinary technician taking products to use on their own pets or doctors paid on a production basis who use computer systems to credit themselves for the work of colleagues.

Olah explained that since the pandemic, she’s seen an increase in crimes at veterinary clinics such as theft and fraud by staff members.

“Veterinarians by nature are fairly trusting,” Olah said. “We don’t want to think negatively of people, we don’t want to assume someone could steal, and we want to be able to trust our staff.”

While not as common as employee security breaches, external threats, such as robberies, vandalism, and break-ins, do occur at veterinary practices for various reasons.

Survey data, expert advice

The Veterinary Hospital Managers Association (VHMA) conducts brief topical surveys monthly with its members on common issues for practices.

The Practice Security Breaches survey was conducted as a follow-up to the December 2022 survey on Negative Interpersonal Behavior, which covered the rise in negative interpersonal behavior in veterinary medicine, both among practice team members and between clients and team members.

“Our members were reporting an increase in negative interactions with clients,” said Christine Shupe, executive director of VHMA. “We wanted to find out if practices were also seeing increased security breaches at their facilities.”

“While only a small percentage of practices have experienced these, it is clear that practice teams are more concerned about this issue now than in the past and are putting more security measures in place,” according to the report on the Practice Security Breaches survey.

Shupe was pleased that VHMA members did not report increases in physical security issues. However, the VHMA did identify that some practices have stepped up their physical safety measures and have updated or implemented policies and procedures to deal with potential problems.

Although most practices surveyed, 83% of the 175 respondents, had not experienced any security breaches, several had. The percentage of respondents that acknowledged the presence of crime in the immediate neighborhood of their clinic was 16%. In addition, 3% reported that their practice had been broken into, and 2% had cars in the practice parking area that were broken into.

Eleven percent of respondents said the frequency of theft increased in the past year. Six percent experienced vandalism in the past year, and 5% experienced the theft of money.

As a result of crime in their practice, 18% of the 171 respondents to this question said they added security cameras to their property in the past year. Eight percent updated or added door locks. Sixty-four percent did not add new security technology or hardware.

Among other findings from the survey, of the 175 respondents, 37% said they do not offer a staff training program that includes facility safety or awareness training. More than half, 51%, said they provide this training in-house.

KimberlyAnn Mackey, a certified veterinary practice manager and parole supervisor for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Field Services, spoke with AVMA News about the VHMA survey results. Mackey managed a veterinary practice for 10 years while also working parole and has more than 15 years of experience in veterinary medicine.

“My view is that a lot of veterinary practices are small, familylike atmospheres,” Mackey said. “So they don't think they have security issues, and a lot of practices have the ‘It won't happen here’ mentality.”

Mackey emphasized the importance of clinics holding training sessions on facility safety and awareness to inform employees about procedures to prevent and respond to security breaches.

She explained that staff members should know what to do in certain security breaches, such as calling the police, getting people to a safe place, recording what is going on in the practice, and documenting a security breach.

“So many practices are maxed out, the thing that’s going to slide typically is this administrative portion,” Olah of the VBA said. “In veterinary clinics, there are so many things of value that people don’t even realize.”

Tips for crime prevention

Veterinary practices have many options when it comes to preventing security breaches.

“At the end of the day, if you want to protect your practice, it definitely means more work for the owner,” Olah said.

“Some of the practices are doing some great things already for security breaches,” Mackey said. “I think the main thing they should absolutely be doing is developing a relationship with the local police.”

A practice can have police or another outside expert come in to look at the facility and give suggestions to make it safer for staff members and clients.

Mackey suggested training clinic staff members on de-escalation and verbal communication as well as safety issues that they might face. She stressed the value of investing in education for receptionists or client service representatives at the front desk because they are at the front line in any crisis and integral to keeping a tense situation from escalating.

Some basics for preventing external threats are:

  • Install sufficient lighting in the parking lot and around the building.
  • Install automatically locking doors. Keep the employee entrance door locked at all times.
  • Install surveillance cameras or an electronic alarm system with a panic button, which will allow team members to mobilize help quickly.
  • Store money in a secure safe between deposits, including checks and credit card slips.
  • Make sure all controlled substances are not visible to clients and are locked in a designated area. Utilize logs and regular counts.

Some tips for preventing employee crime are:

  • Have a thorough understanding of clinic finances and monitor them regularly.
  • Separate duties among team members to set up a system of checks and balances.
  • Limit who can sign checks. All checks that require a signature should have a supporting invoice that can be matched to the check amount.
  • Review payroll reports before submission to ensure that all values are accurate.
  • Keep an eye on inventory. Inventory shrink most often occurs with high turnover items such as in-room supplies.
  • Conduct background checks on all new hires.

“I think we can reduce the number of crimes at veterinary practices by taking precautions,” Olah said. “But if people are motivated to do so (commit crime), it’s really hard to prevent it completely.”