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My dog broke his leg

Sure, veterinary practices are super busy, but curtly turning away emergency cases or making pet owners endure long, silent waits won’t endear clients to your hospital. Video or audio visits, anyone?

My dog broke his leg
Ben will be ready to romp again when the cast comes off.

My 18-month-old, love-of-my-life Great Dane rescue dog broke his leg. Ben was playing in the backyard and caught his right front leg in something, causing a greenstick fracture of his distal radius. This happened in the early afternoon, so I called the veterinary practice where we have been a client for over a year. Now, bear in mind that we have five cats and two dogs, all covered by pet health insurance, and we spare no expense in caring for our animals. Safe to say we are a rather good and substantial client.

When I called, the receptionist informed me that the practice was booked solid, no appointment slots were available and I would have to take Ben to the 24-hour emergency hospital and specialty practice in town. I was not happy. I thought I had built a relationship with my veterinarian. Ben knew the people there and would have been more comfortable, yet I was told (somewhat rudely) that Ben could not be seen that day because they were too busy.

Fortunately, we have an excellent emergency hospital in town. We took Ben there and were greeted by several signs stating that we had to call in and that due to COVID-19, we would not be allowed inside. Some remodeling was underway, as evidenced by construction workers going in and out of the building.

We called the phone number, explained to the receptionist what was going on, and provided our client and patient information. The receptionist was genuinely nice and spoke with us for about 10 minutes. At the conclusion, she told us that someone would be out to take Ben into the practice. After about 15 minutes, a young lady in a face mask walked to our vehicle. We repeated some of the same information given to the receptionist, and she took Ben inside. We were instructed to wait for the doctor to call us once the exam was completed.

Tick Tock, Tick Tock

We live in Parker, Colorado, and the weather that day was nice but hot. We waited in the car, the air conditioner running, for about a half-hour. The doctor then called to say she had examined Ben and would like to do an X-ray. Naturally, we approved and continued to wait.

About an hour later, the doctor called to say that X-rays showed Ben had a greenstick fracture. The X-rays had been read by a radiologist, and both doctors did not feel surgery was necessary, at least at this time. She recommended a splint and that Ben be sedated for the procedure. We approved both, and the doctor said a receptionist would call with a cost estimate. I told her it was not necessary and that she should do whatever she felt was best for Ben. (Now that I think of it, I don’t recall signing any forms or giving written permission for the procedure; it was all done verbally.)

The doctor said she would call in an hour or two when everything was completed. The hospital is about an hour from our home, so we left to have dinner. After about 90 minutes, we returned to the emergency hospital and sat outside for another hour and a half until the doctor called. She said Ben was ready to go, she reviewed the discharge instructions and she told us that the receptionist would call to go over the invoice. About 10 minutes later, the receptionist informed me that the bill was $960.61. I provided a credit card number.

Again, we waited for what seemed like an eternity, but a technician finally brought out Ben. He was as happy to see us as we were to see him. The technician went over the discharge orders with us. She suggested we get a surgical consult but said “their” surgeon was booked out 60 days for a consult and would not be able to see us. She had no suggestions about another board-certified surgeon.

A Fractured Relationship

I tell you this story because, unfortunately, this is what many clients experience in these pandemic times and it was not by any means a positive experience. Ben received exceptionally good medical care, but as a client, I wouldn’t want to go through it again.

What could have been done to improve the experience?

Let’s start at the beginning. When we moved to Parker, we spent a lot of time looking at veterinary hospitals and choosing the one that would be best for us. We knew our hospital was not open 24 hours a day, but it had three full-time DVMs whom I thought would be able to serve our needs. Yet when we called that afternoon, the receptionist told us there was no way a doctor would see Ben and that we should go to the emergency hospital.

I told the receptionist that Ben was limping and that although I did not know whether the leg was broken, I knew he needed an X-ray. The receptionist was emphatic that Ben could not be accommodated. A doctor could have at least looked at Ben, I thought, and then, if necessary, tell me to go to the emergency hospital. The doctor never talked to me; this was all from the receptionist.

We are considering finding another veterinary hospital for our pets, one that will be there for us when needed.

A Better Way

The emergency hospital provided excellent medical care to Ben, and I have no complaints in that regard, yet I never laid eyes on the veterinarian. I spoke to her by phone three times. She recognized my name and asked if I was a veterinary consultant, but not once did she come outside. The overall wait time wasn’t excessive, but the hospital team could have been more accurate with the time estimates. I would have appreciated being called more often to hear about Ben’s progress.

I suggest to many of my client practices that they switch from curbside service to concierge service. With concierge service, pet owners who schedule an appointment are offered a video or audio visit. An owner who wants a video visit — we use either Zoom or FaceTime — is given a URL. After arriving at the practice, the client can go to the URL to see the doctor doing the exam, and a two-way conversation can occur.

The other option is an audio visit in which the client is called when the pet is inside the exam room. This allows the doctor to communicate with the client and answer questions.

In both instances, the practices I work with report that an audio or video visit is much more efficient. Instead of back-and-forth phone calls, the client can see or talk with the doctor. The perception of value is greatly enhanced.

The emergency hospital where I took Ben could have offered the service. It is not used only in general practice.

A Fortunate Profession

Our profession is lucky and blessed. Businesses are closing every day because of the pandemic. Movie theaters are not open, airlines have seen a 90% drop in business and restaurants are shutting in droves, yet veterinary medicine is thriving.

Most of the practices my consulting firm works with and tracks financially are doing remarkably well. Most have improved their year-over-year revenue, many substantially. In the middle of a pandemic!

Just think about it for a minute. The spike in business speaks volumes about our profession and how clients value and need our services. I think veterinary medicine will be called a pandemic-proof profession when we are finally over COVID. But I also think we will be judged by how we handle clients during this period.

I know many practices are busy and some are booked out weeks or more, but we need to take care of how we treat our clients and their pets. I urge you to take a look at your practice from your clients’ point of view. What are they experiencing and what can be improved? Providing better communication, offering video or audio visits, or simply coming outside and talking to a client can make an enormous difference from the pet owner’s perspective.

How we handle clients today will be how we are judged in the future.

Practice Smarter columnist Mark Opperman is president and founder of Veterinary Management Consultation Inc. His column won first-place honors in the Florida Magazine Association’s 2020 Charlie Awards.

Click here to read a rebuttal, “Give Us a Break,” by Dr. Sue Rancurello.