Seeing patients at or inside client homes provides veterinarians with a business model that is often cheaper and less stressful than owning a traditional hospital. Clients leery of transporting an anxious pet or more than one animal also benefit.
Pet owners don’t always have time to take their cat or dog to you for an annual checkup or to investigate a medical matter. That means fewer client visits and less business for brick-and-mortar practices. The challenge, however, is being answered by veterinarians who forgo a fixed building and try their luck with a mobile service.
John Stockman, national sales manager for Wag’n Tails Mobile Conversions, is a big believer in younger practitioners — and retirees looking for part-time independent work — going the mobile route.
“Cost of entry is a main reason [they do it] as it’s much more economical than brick-and-mortar,” he said. “For those who go that way, they can save the headaches of personnel as well, as it’s basically a two-person operation.”
Recent graduates and millennial doctors often find the cost of starting a direct-to-home service about 30% to 40% cheaper than starting a brick-and-mortar practice, Stockman said. Also, the business might provide something new to the community and the practitioner can better connect with clients too busy for a clinic visit.
Choosing Something Different
Many of today’s mobile practitioners had clinic experience but wanted to strike out on their own. Paula Aycock, DVM, started Dr. Paula’s Mobile Veterinary Service in Torrance, California, about a decade after her 2007 graduation from Western University of Health Sciences. She invested $100,000 in a 23-foot truck, $80,000 in radiology equipment and thousands more to hire a veterinary technician and cover other startup costs. Her mobile truck has an exam table, surgery suite, digital radiology, a tabletop analyzer, hand-held ultrasound, dental equipment, scales, IV pump, an ICU cage and more.
“I’m regularly seeing anywhere from four to eight appointments a day and approximately 100 to 125 patients per month,” Dr. Aycock said. “This was a way for me to get out of the clinic and offer the services that people needed for their pets, without them having to come in.”
Stockman has seen some veterinarians semiretire from practice but serve a few of their best clients through a mobile business. “This way, it gives them something to do and they stay busy in the profession without having to deal with everything that comes with the stresses of running their own clinic,” he said.
To be sure, some brick-and-mortar veterinary practices provide mobile services. Clients requesting wellness exams or who might need to cancel an appointment because they are busy at home might request a visit instead, Stockman said.
‘A Game Changer’
Autumn Fanning, DVM, the president and CEO of Vet’s Here, a Southern California mobile practice, said four-wheeled veterinarians are a growing trend.
“I like the independence of it,” Dr. Fanning said. “There is an intimacy that you can’t get at a practice, and I see at every visit that this is a game changer in the industry. I have a much easier time getting clients to comply with what I want them to do because there is an instant trust and the pet is happier.”
Seeing the patient’s daily environment might help with a diagnosis. In one case, Dr. Fanning could tell that a dog had been biting a surface covered with old lead paint.
Many mobile vans or trucks are designed for wellness visits, with practitioners performing vaccinations and checkups.
“Many people have more than one pet, so the vet can get a lot of business just in one spot,” Stockman said.
Some mobile veterinarians have surgical privileges at nearby hospitals while others refer patients in need of invasive procedures and then follow up afterward.
“What I encourage people to do is contract with a stationary clinic that has an OR,” Stockman said. “The problem with doing surgery in a mobile is you have the downtime while a patient recovers, and that’s just dead time for you. Another problem is if a patient crashes, you don’t have the infrastructure that you would in a clinic.”
Dr. Fanning’s mobile unit, a 26-foot truck manufactured by La Boit Specialty Vehicles, has an exam and treatment area, surgical suite, dentistry capabilities, full anesthesia, advanced monitoring, digital radiography, pharmacy, ultrasound, scale and laboratory. She can do everything a general practice does except hospitalizations.
Better Quality of Life
Kathy Baker, DVM, founder of Lucy’s Veterinary Care, a mobile service in Smyrna, Georgia, previously worked at two multidoctor brick-and-mortar practices. While she loved the experience, both jobs were more than 25 miles from home. She despised the commute.
“I love being able to help people and their pets, and I wanted to continue to do that, but I needed to make a change for my family’s quality of life,” Dr. Baker said. “After being the senior doctor at the practice for many years, I did not want to go back to being the low man on the totem pole, but I also was not willing to deal with all that goes into running a traditional land-based practice, especially the debt load.”
She discovered that managing a home-care practice had a lower financial barrier to entry.
“I happen to live in an area where there were no mobile small animal doctors,” Dr. Baker said. “I have always loved getting to be a part of the pet’s team of caregivers and developing relationships with my clients. Meeting with them in their home provides a truly unique way of doing this. Clients are often more open and honest when they are in their comfort zone.”
Owning a mobile practice was positive for Dr. Baker in other ways.
“I have the freedom now to go volunteer at my child’s school for an hour or pop in for lunch with her,” she said. “These are things that I would not have been able to do if I had continued at my original post. I also am in control of the schedule and can create appointment hours that work for my family and my patients’ families.”
Dr. Baker’s vehicle houses radiography, anesthesia, surgical capabilities and a laboratory.
“The only things I can’t do,” she said, “are hospitalization of critically ill patients, because I do not transport pets with me from site to site and can’t stay at one home all day, and in-depth surgical procedures that require intensive monitoring postoperatively.”
Another form of mobile practice is in-home care. Jeremy Gransky, DVM, a partner with MVS Pet Care, which sells doctor-owned franchises, has run a house-call practice for 14 years.
“After completing an internship after veterinary school and then working in multidoctor brick-and-mortar small animal practices for seven years, I was ready to start my own practice,” Dr. Gransky said. “I was very drawn to house-call practice because of how easy it was on the pets involved and how personalized it was for the clients. Over the years, we have seen how appreciative our clients are to receive this level of care in a fashion that truly limits the stress on their pets.”
A veterinarian can put her or his stamp on the business by developing a practice style.
“I have found this to be a wonderful way to maintain your energy and passion for the field long term while avoiding the burnout that many doctors experience working in a busy hospital setting,” Dr. Gransky said.
He refers critically ill patients and animals requiring surgery or more advanced diagnostics to local emergency hospitals.
Compensation of house-call veterinarians is competitive with what they would earn in a traditional clinic, Dr. Gransky said.
“By nature of the practice, we do see fewer patients each day, as we need to account for travel time and spending more time with the clients at each visit, but this is balanced by the lower operating costs, and the clients do value the extra time with their doctor,” he said.
Keith Loria is a Virginia-based freelance writer who covers everything from veterinary medicine to real estate and entertainment.