Looking Back, Moving Forward
Veterinary practice revenue persisted — and even grew — during the pandemic. What lessons can we take away?
As the United States moves into the next phase of the pandemic, with vaccinations underway and safety measures relaxing, business leaders finally have a chance to get a clearer picture of how COVID-19 has changed their operations.
Today’s Veterinary Business spoke with Dr. Jim Weisman, an assistant dean for student affairs and clinical associate professor in the Department of Veterinary Administration at Purdue University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
Weisman, a former veterinarian who worked in private practice and is a delegate from Indiana to the American Veterinary Medical Association, offered his perspective on how the pandemic has affected practice finances, pandemic-era safety measures that may end up helping business and lessons veterinary professionals can take to prepare for future economic challenges.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
TVB: Overall, do you believe the pandemic will have a long-term impact on veterinary practice financial stability, or do you predict the industry will return to its pre-pandemic trajectory?
JW: We certainly don’t know. However, I think most feel that we will not return to the true pre-COVID. The thought is that the marketplace has expanded, and so we will continue to see positive growth that we’ve experienced during COVID. Not necessarily to the same degree, but there will be continuing growth.
That growth is due in small part to the adoption of new pets, but also because of a greater realization by the pet-owning public about the responsibility they have to keep their pets healthy. Even for people who previously had pets, there’s more of a sense of duty in getting the veterinary care the animals need.
TVB: The veterinary industry has been referred to as “recession-proof.” Do you agree?
JW: Historically, the industry has remained strong during recessions. “Proof” might be too strong a word. It’s not recession-proof, but maybe “recession-protected.”
TVB: What can practice owners take forward at this stage in the pandemic? What trends emerged during it that might help them prepare in case of a future economic downturn?
JW: I think the key factor for practices moving forward is, in order to meet demands and rising caseloads, there needs to be better utilization of staff. Greater use of veterinary nurses or technician staff will allow doctors and clinicians to practice more efficiently.
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This goes back to practice management, which needs to directly outline who’s responsible for what job duties.
I think another big thing practices learned about during the pandemic was the appropriate use of telehealth and telemedicine. I do think it’s essential to first establish an appropriate in-person veterinarian-client-patient relationship must first be established. Then, telehealth allows for the expansion of client services and client satisfaction.
TVB: Did practices implement any employee benefits during the pandemic that may have helped them maintain financial stability?
JW: To me it all comes back to the approach to staffing. It’s not necessarily about more financial compensation, but other types of enhancements or benefits. That could be additional professional development opportunities for veterinarians, technicians and front-office staff, finding ways to encourage them to grow in their positions.
I see this across the board. Bigger corporate groups have been doing this for some time, but individual private practices and consolidated practice groups now also have a focus on professional development, to help staff be more efficient and more productive because of greater workplace satisfaction.
TVB: Did practices implement any client benefits that helped them maintain financial stability?
JW: Certain processes in hospitals helped improve client convenience, including new ways of picking up and dropping off patients, getting prescriptions — finding ways to provide for client convenience when practices are busy. This includes the focus on telehealth to address concerns when the patient couldn’t come to the hospital.
The idea is client satisfaction, but ultimately it’s efficiency for the staff. To me, it’s about finding ways for clients to be able to get certain products. For example, offering drive-through service as opposed to clients having to park the car, or shipping products or relying on pharmacies.
TVB: Do you think community COVID-19 vaccination rates will affect practices’ financial outlooks going forward?
JW: It’s probably too early to say. Practices will base their decisions on what local municipalities and the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] recommendations are. That’s what most practices have done.
Organized veterinary medicine has been well-connected to providing information. It’s been connected to the CDC in giving recommendations, and I think that will continue.
TVB: Do you have a sense of whether veterinary professionals view the pandemic as ending, or even over? Or do you think the industry is less optimistic? Does this affect practice owners’ financial outlooks and business decisions?
JW: I think it is probably going to be somewhat regional. In general, I think for most, folks are opening back up to pre-COVID processes in terms of how they handle clients, while still being focused on safety. But they’re still trying to open up to their previous routines.
Hiring certainly has not slowed down. I think students are feeling optimistic, especially in the sense that the job market is certainly in their favor.
Within veterinary practices at all different levels, including thise contemplating expansion, I think folks are looking optimistically at what the future holds.