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Come aboard!

The veterinary industry has a lot going for it, starting with the historic role pets play in everyday life. Staffing issues and the cost of care deserve attention, however.

Come aboard!
Our profession is experiencing largely fair winds, but it will always be necessary to adjust our sails as the winds change.

Sailors are familiar with the phrase “fair winds and following seas.” The saying refers to ideal conditions for steering a ship. Our profession is enjoying both fair winds and a few rough seas.

With that in mind, I’ve been thinking about our profession’s tailwinds and headwinds. Ever the optimist, I’ll start with tailwinds, which in my estimation far outweigh the headwinds. In some cases, the same wind can be viewed as either a tailwind or a headwind. Go figure.

Tailwinds

1. OUR VALUE TO SOCIETY

We continue to be among the most admired professionals as veterinarians or veterinary nurses. It’s impossible to attend a neighborhood barbecue and not be chatted up by someone who wanted to be a veterinary professional or hear all about her cat’s litter box behavior. This is an enormous advantage to our profession. Does your dentist, CPA or attorney have the same societal standing? Not so much.

A recent Packaged Facts survey showed that 81% of respondents considered themselves loyal to their veterinarian or animal hospital. Loyalty cannot be replaced by online shopping carts and FAQs. Further, think about what we do for society. In this polarized world, we make pets healthy and families happier. No left, no right, no red, no blue. Just bow and wow, puppy breath and kitten purrs. That’s value. Our profession is well-positioned for continued success.

2. HUMANIZATION OF PETS

As my good friend Dr. Marty Becker says, in our lifetime pets have moved from the barnyard to the backyard to the back porch to the living room to the bedroom to the bed to under the covers. Pets are part of the family. The growth of this magical bond has and continues to revolutionize companion animal practice.

3. THE FUR BABY MOVEMENT

Millennials and the Gen Zers to follow (PetGen) have moved beyond pets under the covers. Their pets are, in fact, fur babies. These four-legged children have their own diapers, strollers and basinets. The care required of a fur baby is driving the profession to new heights. Not to mention that this generation is driving pet ownership up. Sixty-eight percent of households own a pet in 2018 vs. just 50% in 1988. PetGen is poised to be the best generation of pet owners ever. How we care for and communicate with PetGen is critical to our continuing success as a profession. The opportunity is enormous.

4. PET SPENDING

Up, up, up. The humanization of pets and a good economy have combined to drive up increases in pet spending. While the U.S. gross domestic product is growing at a healthy 3% a year, our beloved pet industry far exceeds the overall economy. In 2018 we had yet another record-breaking year for pet spending, $72.56 billion. Estimates call for the pet industry to top $100 billion by 2021. That’s a nice tailwind.

5. PET LIFESPANS

Up, up, up. Pet lifespans will continue to grow because of better nutrition, dental care, behavioral counseling, immunizations, parasite control and emergent care. Cat lifespans rose from 11.0 years in 2002 to 12.9 years in 2016, an increase of 17.3%. Canine lifespans over the same period went from 10.5 to 11.8 years, up 12.4%.

How long should well-cared-for pets live? Fifteen years? Twenty? Imagine the benefits to pet families when teenage pets are the norm, not to mention the financial implications to our profession. Did you know that 83% of Medicare costs come in the last four months of human life? Not that we aspire to follow in human health care’s footsteps, but do be prepared to become excellent pet geriatricians.

6. CAREER PROSPECTS

As a veterinarian, you can have three or four job offers in the next 30 days if you so choose. Unemployment for vets is around 1%. As a veterinary nurse, you’d likely have eight or nine job offers over one month of searching. Jobs are plentiful. That’s a good thing. If you’re unhappy at your current position, fulfill your current obligations, leave with plenty of notice, never burn a bridge and go find a better job. Looking ahead, prospects remain bright. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, veterinary jobs will increase by 15,000 from 2016 to 2026, while veterinary technician jobs will grow by over 20,000.

7. WAGES

The shortage of veterinary professionals is driving up compensation. So, let’s enjoy some long-overdue rising wages. The net present value of a veterinary degree is up $400,000 from 2015 to 2018. Wow!

8. SHELTER REINVENTION

Shelters are putting themselves out of business. How cool is that! Euthanasia is way down, and many progressive shelters are importing pets for adoption. Having started to run out of unwanted pets, shelters are reinventing themselves by providing communities with animal care education, wildlife care, foster programs, transport programs, forensics and veterinary services for those in need. Yahoo!

9. EDUCATIONAL SHIFT

Academia is evolving to better meet the needs of a changing society by addressing both graduate quality and quantity. They’re raising class sizes to help offset the current workforce shortage and instituting curricular change to provide a better entry-level graduate. Schools are working to produce competent, confident and practice-ready new graduates.

Innovation in academia, including cost-effective community-based models, professional skills training (communication, leadership, teamwork, practice management), new teaching technologies and partnerships with centers of excellence are just a few of the changes underway. The best and brightest are still drawn to this profession and are being well-prepared to join our ranks and lead the way to an even brighter future.

Headwinds

1. WORKFORCE SHORTAGE

The doctor and nurse shortage is here. We have increasing demand for our services but an insufficient supply of providers. This shortage is the limiting factor to continued growth of our profession. What happened? Just a few years ago the Veterinary Workforce Study concluded that an excess capacity of veterinarians would persist through 2025. Oops! A bit off there.

Have you seen the most recent American Veterinary Medical Association career center graphs plotting applicants (supply) against jobs (demand)? The gap between the number of applicants and open positions is staggering and getting worse. Picture an alligator head in profile with its mouth wide open. The top jaw is the number of jobs and the lower jaw is the number of applicants. Something’s got to give.

2. WORKFORCE WELLNESS

Burnout, compassion fatigue, depression and suicide have reached critical levels. A recent report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that female veterinarians are 3.5 times as likely, and male veterinarians 2.1 times as likely, to die from suicide as compared with the general population. That’s tragic. Last year’s Merck survey showed that only 24% of millennial veterinarians endorse our profession. Additionally, veterinary nurse average career spans remain between five and seven years. These are heartbreaking statistics. Wellness must remain a priority for our profession. Continuing the good work already started on wellness is critical.

3. COST OF CARE

Pet owners with household incomes under $70,000 are not seeking veterinary care. Our profession has built a remarkable medical offering for affluent pet owners. Those who can afford it have access to the highest quality of care in the world. However, those families of limited means are not coming in, in part because the cost of care is a barrier. Would less-affluent pet families benefit from veterinary care? Of course they would. How can we better meet the need? How do we think differently about the cost of care?

4. COST OF EDUCATION

We’ve seen or are experiencing the crushing debt that comes with a college education. This applies to both veterinarians and veterinary nurses. Ultimately, some of the best and brightest will not be called to our profession. Debt is a known contributor to burnout, compassion fatigue, mental distress, and likely, suicide. So, how can we deliver a quality education at a more reasonable price?

5. CONSOLIDATION

You could debate whether this is a headwind or a tailwind. I could argue for a tailwind, but I recognize that not all consolidators take the long view of our profession. Some are here for a quick flip. By that I mean they plan to buy up a number of practices and quickly sell them to the next highest bidder. These groups have a good understanding of the financial aspects of our profession but little or no understanding of the “heart” of our profession.

In my mind, there are missionaries and mercenaries. The mercenaries will be gone in a few years, having added little or no value. Good riddance to them. The mission-driven groups understand both the head and the heart of our great profession. They’re working to add value to the teams and pet owners we serve.

6. TECHNOLOGY

I attended a Brakke Consulting presentation where I heard that 66% of surveyed veterinarians are very unlikely to somewhat unlikely to adopt telehealth in the near future. Twelve percent didn’t know one way or the other. Only 22% of us are somewhat likely to adopt, very likely to adopt, or actively considering or evaluating telehealth.

I, for one, am working to embrace, learn and utilize technology to better support my WellHaven Pet Health teams and clients in any way I can. Cloud-based PIMs, texting, triage, pictures, videos, virtual appointments, wearables — bring it on! Better care comes through technology-supported veterinary teams.

7. COMPETITION

Amazon has clearly targeted the pet space. Alexa voice-activated ordering, pharmacy licenses in all 50 states, $4.4 billion in pet product sales in 2018, and Wag-branded pet food. Consumers love Amazon. I do, too. Meanwhile, Walmart plans to open 1,000 veterinary clinics by 2023. Yikes! By some accounts, two-thirds of pet owners shop at Walmart.

8. DECLINE OF BIG-BOX PET RETAIL

Pet superstores are losing customers at an alarming rate to independents and Amazon. The mega pet stores have burdened themselves with enormous debt that is now selling at pennies on the dollar. Perhaps their ships are not sinking, but they’re certainly taking on water. This has frightening implications for our colleagues associated with big pet retailers.

9. DIVERSITY

Our profession does not reflect the society we serve. I’m told we’re seeing diversity improvements in recently admitted veterinary classes. I hope that’s true. With diversity comes strength, flexibility and new perspectives. We need all three. To ensure the health of our profession, improving diversity is a must.

OK, one last seafaring reference: “The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.”

Our profession is experiencing largely fair winds, but it will always be necessary to adjust our sails as the winds change. I see largely fair winds and following seas ahead. Where you set your sails will determine your future direction.

I’d best stop now before we’re all seasick.

Creative Disruption columnist Dr. Bob Lester is chief medical officer of WellHaven Pet Health and a founding member of Banfield Pet Hospital and the Lincoln Memorial University College of Veterinary Medicine. He serves on the North American Veterinary Community board of directors.

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