How can we change the pattern we have got ourselves into? - Veterinary Practice
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How can we change the pattern we have got ourselves into?

The Mercury Column, in which a guest columnist takes the temperature of the profession – and the world around.

I RECENTLY READ ABOUT the third Human Veterinary Cross Talk Symposium, organised by Ceva and held in Paris, where more than a hundred veterinary and human medical experts from Europe, Australia and the US were gathered to hear about the latest developments and research findings across a range of clinical topics in cats, dogs and humans.

A frisson of discord came from deep within me and was nothing to do with the scope or application of these delegates in a conference which seems extremely laudable. Rather, my concern focused on something far more fundamental and that is the nature of our professional relationship with the client base that provides the necessary underpinning for the business success of our practices.

It seems to me that it’s time to re-assess the way in which we choose to interface with our clients in small animal practice because I suspect that we’re so busy following the strategy that the practice entity requires us to follow that we’re losing sight of the key issue around which our future success may revolve.

That sounds a little arcane so maybe I should explain the direction of my thoughts!

Over the last decade or two, we have found ourselves facing a far greater level of competition within our profession as both the intensity and nature of the competition has developed significantly.

We train far more veterinary students now, we are expected to open our clinic doors for longer and for more days in every week and we are now competing in a far more commercially savvy and demanding way – all without much in the way of business training.

Add to this the relentless encroachment on areas of activity which we once thought of as our own by a more organised, more cohesive and more professional specialist pet sector.

So, whichever way we look at it, the services we offer and the way in which we offer them are a long way from the style of practice in our parents’ time, let alone looking any further back than that.

Changing behaviour and compromises

Gradually and inexorably, it becomes more difficult to attract and retain loyal clients, partly because the nature of consumer behaviour has also changed and partly because, in our attempts to meet this changing nature of consumer demand, we have compromised some of our own professional comfort zone.

If we were able to draw a graph of the number of active clients/FTE over time, I suspect that we would see a continued decline way below that shown by the end of the period when Fort Dodge collected the FDI data.

After a decade of analysis, that survey showed a reduction in those numbers by very nearly 20% and, while I haven’t been able to access data in the intervening period, in the absence of a surge of new pet owners it seems unlikely that these ratios will have improved dramatically.

Competition determines that services will be spread more thinly if, as the Vet file data show, we have significantly higher numbers of small animal practices offering similar services than we had even a decade ago and it appears that there are many more new veterinary practices still to come.

There is a real risk that the services we offer could become a commodity where competition achieves ever lower prices rather than something more lasting.

How can we change this pattern? Regarding the underpinning of the relationship between vets and clients, shouldn’t we be looking to achieve something akin to the revision of priorities that human healthcare has brought about?

As an example, the whole approach to childbirth had become far more medicalised with many more women being offered birthing choices which revolved around some form of hospitalisation but, in reality, a large percentage of expectant mothers do not actually need, or indeed may not benefit from, additional levels of medicalisation.

Now, with improved screening and monitoring, UK midwives have succeeded in being able to offer many of these women a more natural experience without the concomitant risks that increased medical attention can bring with it.

Of course, where the risks to a straightforward birth are higher, and there are many to consider, increased medical attention in a centre which can immediately cope with traumatic developments is advisable and possibly vital, but it has now been recognised that less medical intervention can result in better outcomes for mothers and babies.

Research among recent births has shown that the mothers’ positive recall and perception of the experience of childbirth revolves around the extent to which they were made to feel at the centre of the whole event and on the relationship they developed, positive or otherwise, with the professionals who attended them.

Is there a lesson here for us? We know that the lay public’s understanding of the concept of health differs from that of the medical profession but it is widely held that health should be considered as the ideal state – a description which provides an holistic and positive definition.

Lacking a plan

Our practices operate on two separate planes – dealing with trauma and disease and with offering preventive care – but we rarely see a practice setting out its stall to manage proactively the life-long care of a client’s pet, in a partnership of shared responsibility, with a care plan that embraces everything that life may throw at that animal.

Before I hear the tidal wave of complaint from scores of practices offering health plans, I recognise that this is a valuable service but it’s usually based on an aggregated offering of chargeable services and products and not on the more subtle observation that, from the consumer’s point of view, everything should revolve around their animal and not around what a practice normally sells.

I admit that I don’t yet have a fully-worked-out business model but, just as we need to switch to managing lifetime customer value and away from our focus on average transactional value, I feel in my bones that we need to share proactively in the management of the lifetime health of clients’ pets and move away from situational interventions which require the client to bring the animal to us as a starting point for each interaction.

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