Creative Disruption columnist Dr. Bob Lester is the chief medical officer at WellHaven Pet Health, a former practice owner and a founding member of Banfield Pet Hospital and the Lincoln Memorial University College of Veterinary Medicine. He serves on the boards of Pet Peace of Mind, WellHaven Pet Health and the Lincoln Memorial veterinary college. He is president-elect of the North American Veterinary Community.Read Articles Written by Bob Lester
To my generation of veterinarians (boomers), James Herriot was our role model. Mr. Herriot treated all creatures, great and small. One doctor, all places (exam rooms, stalls and barnyards), all alone, all types of medicine, all creatures, at all times. It was a romantic ideal that built the profession we all hold dear. But is that ideal still possible? Can we still be all things to all people? Sadly, I’m not so sure. Perhaps the question is, how can today’s generation of veterinary professionals meet the needs of today’s creatures, great and small?
We live in a time of veterinary professional abundance. Pet numbers are up, pet lifespans are up, euthanasia is down, pet spending is up, and America’s love affair with pets has never been stronger. Yes, we’re dealing with issues of personal well-being, the cost of education, the workforce shortage and barriers to veterinary care. But the positives far outweigh the negatives.
Stephen R. Covey, writing in “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” described an abundance mindset in which a person believes there are enough resources and successes for all and a scarcity mindset in which if someone wins, someone else loses. There’s no consideration of a win-win. Our profession, however, is poised for win-wins.
Likewise, Dr. Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychology professor, described two types of mindsets. The first is a fixed, or scarcity, mindset that is averse to risk, reluctant to change and anchored in the past. The second is a growth, or abundance, mindset that is motivated, generative, and open to change and improvement. Our profession is moving to an abundance mindset.
In a time of abundance, why change? Why not continue to be all things to all people? Because without change, things stay the same and ultimately stagnate. When we change, we adapt and move forward. Change can be scary, but change is opportunity.
COVID-19 accelerated change across the veterinary landscape, like it or not. But what got us here won’t get us there. Consumers, our workforce, expectations, technology, workflows and duties have changed. Further, the changes are accelerating. Uncomfortable, yes. Scary, yes. But what a tremendous opportunity for those who evolve to meet the landscape’s changing needs.
Can we still be all things to all creatures, great and small? I don’t think so. While I believe there will always be a place for the primary care general practitioner — a role I love and admire — it can no longer be the primary model for veterinary care delivery.
Here are four reasons to do things differently:
- New technology: We’ve seen an explosion in new diagnostics and medications, clinical decision support, artificial intelligence, client communication interfaces, telemedicine, wearables and distance education. The list goes on.
- Other options: Think about new models of practice, from nurse-driven, urgent care, dental-only and walk-in wellness to telehealth, shelter medicine and midlevel providers. We have a multitude of opportunities to embrace.
- Consumer needs and expectations: Pet Gen (millennials and Gen Zers) is looking for a new relationship with veterinary professionals, one that maintains the personal connections our profession is known for but is enabled by technology and not solely reliant on the DVM. The transition is from the exam room to the living room and the veterinarian expert to the veterinary professional expert.
- External pressure: We’ve been pushed to flex and adapt by the workforce shortage, increased demand, COVID, Rx competition, generational changes, unreasonable client expectations, and the ever-growing bond between pets and families.
What to Change
What can veterinary professionals do differently? Here are a few things within our control:
- Mission, vision and strategy: Is it time to reexamine our “why?” Have we focused appropriately on taking care of ourselves and the team first? Think vets (veterinary professionals) before pets.
- Technology: Embrace new tech. Our dominant consumers and primary workforce are millennials and Gen Zers. Do our offerings meet the needs of that tech-savvy population?
- Behavior: Train new skills. What can we master to meet the needs of our teams and clients? For example, nutrition, behavior, preventive care, laser therapy, ultrasound and telehealth.
- Tasks: Who does what and how? DVMs, let’s delegate and empower our teams. Our job is to diagnose, prescribe and perform surgery. Delegate the rest. Hire well, train well, get out of the way and let your teams perform.
- Organization structure: Can we streamline to be more responsive to one another and consumers? Do lead doctors and practice managers have the autonomy and authority necessary to build great practices for their unique hospital, team and community?
- Culture: It’s the hardest thing to change. Let’s examine our leadership style. Focus on life before work. Create a safe work environment where it’s OK to ask for help. Promote and encourage well-being.
Here are some of the organizations working to move our profession forward by supporting new models of veterinary education, advocating for a new veterinarian-client-patient relationship, introducing midlevel provider programs, embracing diversity and belonging, promoting quality and community, or promoting license portability and protection:
- American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges
- American Association of Veterinary State Boards
- American Animal Hospital Association
- Veterinary Virtual Care Association
- American Veterinary Medical Association
- National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America
- North American Veterinary Community
Change is uncomfortable. Some ideas will fail, but we learn, adapt, iterate and continuously improve. Evolution is necessary for those who don’t wish to become extinct.
Peter Drucker, a famous management educator, once said, “This is a new era of opportunity, but only for those who are willing to accept change as an opportunity, not for those who are afraid of it.”
Can we still practice like James Herriot and offer all things to all people? I fear not. In this time of abundance, it might be time to question our Herriot roots and embrace change that better supports our teams, consumers, pets and profession. Doing so will be scary and uncomfortable, but it also will be exciting, stimulating and necessary as our profession adapts, learns and grows.
I will always honor and cherish our James Herriot roots. There will always be a place for those who strive to be all things to all people. That’s what drew me to the profession. However, the future holds many new and exciting models of practice that will allow us to proudly change from all things to all people to some things to some people. Thank you,
Mr. Herriot, for getting us this far. We’ll take it from here.
THE WIGHT STUFF
James Herriot was the pen name of Dr. James Alfred Wight, the author of “All Creatures Great and Small.” The English veterinarian graduated from Glasgow Veterinary College in 1939 and died in 1995.