Planning needed to meet the challenges ahead - Veterinary Practice
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Planning needed to meet the challenges ahead

THE MERCURY COLUMN in which a guest columnist takes the temperature of the profession – and the world around

IN a perfect world, every practice would have thousands of content, satisfied clients all vying with each other to demonstrate how much they care for and about their pets.

Of course, life is far from perfect and what we do have is a typical crosssection of a mini-society with clients ranging from the ardent to the avantgarde and from the obsessive to the obtuse.

In every practice in the land, there are clients to make you shudder and others who cheer the soul but all the data tell us that, in a typical UK practice, there are fewer active clients today than at any time during the last decade.

Part of that is because there is simply more competition today – with almost 4,600 premises selling veterinary services and products and more than 9,000 veterinary surgeons seeing small animals – and that’s simply the situation within the profession and doesn’t recognise the burgeoning competition on the High Street.

Part of that is down to change in what the profession offers – in 1986 there were around 4,000 premises in total and of the 11,000 veterinary surgeons around 50% regularly saw mixed practice – and part of that change can be attributed to consumers.

Everything has changed

Of course, in 1986, few of us really knew what consumers were, let alone their ability to change the environment in which they went about their daily business, but over the following 27 years everything has changed.

Back then, it soon became apparent that consumers wanted more than the practitioners of the time had been willing to give them, with demands ranging from more parking space and expanded opening times to the facilities to take credit cards, the provision of warm, bright waiting and consulting rooms as well as clean, well-kept toilets.

Of course, today we accept all of these “services” as being normal and nothing out of the ordinary, but it wasn’t always so.

That’s the thing about a consumerled society; like flocks of starlings, consumers swoop and swirl through modern life creating demands and switching their individual and collective allegiance, with barely a second thought, to satisfy a series of hidden criteria.

In black-and-white terms, that sounds entirely superficial but the reality is that consumer demand is the single biggest factor in driving change in a capitalist society and, if one speaks to veterinary surgeons anywhere from Moscow to Manchester, every practitioner is faced with the same problems or opportunities, depending on one’s outlook.

At this point, we can mumble into our breakfast or bite the bullet and accept that these forces are inevitable, daily challenges in operating within a 21st century business environment. If, however, we accept the inevitable, it is vitally important that we change our outlook within the profession as well as seeking to embrace change outside it.

When today’s brand new graduates left school some five or six years ago, Steve Jobs announced the first generation iPhone and Nissan launched the award-winning Sentra car but neither seems that outstanding today.

The new society

While they’ve been buried in their textbooks, Facebook and Twitter have overtaken society worldwide, most of us now receive more spam e-mail on our mobile phones than ever before and corporate veterinary practice in the UK now occupies a higher percentage of the total number of practices than is the case in the US.

What do we think will happen in the next five or six years when this autumn’s new student intake graduates? It is clear that we will have trained a higher number of veterinary graduates year on year and that we will have more veterinary schools doing so, assuming, of course, that veterinary medicine remains an attractive choice for sufficient numbers of students capable of stumping up to the massive financial commitment required to see through at least five years of maximum fees and the ancillary costs of existing during that period.

Consider carefully

For most of us, a £100,000 debt would be something to consider very carefully indeed before we embarked on such a course of action without some solid feeling of comfort that the ensuing enticing salary and job prospects would mitigate the risk.

However, the same consumers who created the need for 24-hour opening, human equivalent medical facilities and car parking like Bluewater are the ones who have voted with their feet and their wallets to buy more and more of their preventive care products from Pets at Home and the rash of new, alternative pet stores which are beginning to flourish in the warm waters of increasing consumer demand while UK veterinary practice continues to haemorrhage footfall, year after year.

These are what the Government likes to call “market forces” and the uncomfortable reality is that we can choose to fight it or join in with it.

If we choose the former, we need to find new, innovative ways of offering other services and products which our retail competitors on the High Street cannot emulate. That’s not easy but probably not impossible. Alternatively, we can join in the retail revolution and carry the battle to the pet stores and supermarkets.

If we are realistic about our chances of success, this approach is less likely to have a happy ending unless we undertake completely new, additional training in the art and the science of retailing as well as in the art and the science of veterinary medicine.

While many of us might consider ourselves to be too long in the tooth to embrace such a profound change, tomorrow’s new graduates will definitely need the skills to be able to compete if we steadfastly resist changing course.

Again, this presupposes that the market forces which consumer pressure creates will generate sufficient footfall over the thresholds of our businesses to allow us the luxury of resisting change.

Data collected over the last decade shows that footfall has suffered an inexorable attrition to the point that it is now almost 20% lower than at the start of this period.

Not viable

We continue to see those loyal consumers who make up the body of our active client base as being the ones who will willingly and increasingly fund the whole shebang while others drift in and out but, longer term, this is not a viable business approach.

As a profession, it behoves us to get together and make some plans. We need plans for how to equip tomorrow’s vets for the business world they will enter and we need plans for how today’s vets will reverse the trend in footfall.

We also need some plans for what to do if these options fail to work but on a one-to-one basis this is less likely to work than if we pool our resources and do it together.

Without doubt, this is a dog-eat-dog world. We urgently need some planning to ensure that it doesn’t become a veteat-vet world too.

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