Profit is a necessity and an admirable goal of all practices, so why does it often make us feel uncomfortable? Talking about money opens a can of worms when we consider balancing a caring public service with living off the profits. It is the lifeblood of a functional business, and yet can be a stumbling block when it comes to client relations and caring for our animal patients. Monetary issues we have to address in practice include the constraints it can place on treatment options, the cynicism of clients regarding our motives and the consequent guilt we may feel. So how do we square the circle of providing care while running sustainable, thriving businesses?
There are two main problems with a simple economic equation of practice profits: firstly, the fact that the animals we’re treating often do not have a measurable monetary value. In food production practice the value of the service may be quantifiable against the monetary value of the animal and the business and decisions may reflect this.
Small animal practice grew out of farm practice, but with the increasing humanisation of pets, we are now faced with animals with little or no economic value, yet who are worth everything to their owners. Sound economics are now hit with an ethical dimension, which jars with the equation. Cue the backyard chicken coming in for life-saving treatments in comparison with the food production chicken where decisions are flock based rather than individual.
Secondly, we are a caring profession, trained and motivated by providing the best care aside from monetary constraints. As Rollin (1999) pointed out, “veterinarians find themselves enmeshed in a web of moral duties and obligations that can and often do conflict”. And the financial pressures only build as our responsibilities grow to our families, employees and clients to run thriving profitable practices. Figures from the SPVS Profitability Survey 2018 showed a total of 56.7 percent of practices scored “below average” or “poor” on its profit-rating scale (up from 54.5 percent in 2016), with 15.9 percent reporting a loss (up from 15 percent). Veterinary surgeon salaries had also reduced. One of the BVA Vet Futures’ ambitions is for “thriving, innovative, user-focused businesses” and it is vital veterinary practices have a sustainable, profitable future so vets can continue to care for and protect the health and welfare of animals.
So how can we turn profit making into an admirable pursuit? Firstly, weigh up the pros and cons of profitability. This is a useful exercise as it reminds us how far the pros outweigh the cons. Positives include: the provision of secure, well-paid jobs; the option to invest and improve in facilities for staff, patients and clients; expansion of services; financial security; and contributing to the economy. The negatives are fairly limited to public perception and financial restriction of some services to clients unable to afford them, both of which can be ameliorated.
Develop self-awareness – what is the root of guilt? If we are clinically confident and convinced that we are providing a valuable service we can start to rationalise being
appropriately remunerated for it. Absolution from the guilt of receiving money for expertise is crucial for professional peace of mind.
Put in place a clear practice policy on profit generation and communicate this with staff. Too often this is a grey area, with the boss giving discounts to favoured clients, yet complaining about employees undercharging. Closed door discounting is harder to measure and ensure parity for clients. There needs to be equality and clarity of charging, and defined professional, personal and business goals for members of the practice.
Giving back, such as having charitable causes, money set aside in a pet support kitty or doing a certain amount of budgeted pro bono work, helps with both personal guilt and public perception of us as a caring profession. With money comes power, and with power comes responsibility. Being successful in business means we have more to give back financially, but also equips us with non-clinical skills and time to contribute to veterinary politics and animal welfare beyond the practice walls.
Finally, embrace the opportunities profits can bring. Profits make a wider contribution to the economy and society. If we have a failing business, everyone ultimately loses – including the clients. Generating profits enables us to remunerate staff well and give additional perks, improving retention and motivation, performance and well-being. Happier staff ultimately leads to better care.