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How pet insurance may save your career

Insured clients, job satisfaction and our ability to provide the best care for pets are all intertwined.

How pet insurance may save your career
Pet insurance can’t eliminate every problem, but it can help you avoid some of them.

“I can’t do this anymore. This is not how I thought my life would go.”

Dr. B stared at the appointment schedule a moment longer before shrugging and walking to the controlled-substances cabinet. Her day would begin with a euthanasia, accented by an early-afternoon end-of-life visit, and finish with a final eternal farewell visit.

This was absolutely not what she imagined veterinary medicine was like when she was an optimistic 9-year-old. Twenty years later, all that remained was a hollow husk of that passion. She really couldn’t do this anymore.

Dr. B’s day was similar to those faced by thousands of other veterinarians:

  • Appointments packed with pet owners pleading for free or discounted care.
  • Families under financial constraints forced to decide the fate of a beloved pet.
  • Veterinary professionals economically hobbled from pursuing best treatment options.

The fact is that economic limitations affect our ability to care for the animals we love to serve, and these restraints potentially damage our desire, enthusiasm and passion to practice. While I can’t promise to deliver you from all these issues, I can offer one solution that may improve staff morale, restore your passion and potentially save your career: pet insurance.

Juggling Pocketbooks

Many veterinarians spend much of their day desperately balancing best patient care with tight pet care budgets. Some days we feel more like an accountant or financial consultant than an animal doctor. This pocketbook juggling takes its toll on our morale and intellect. Instead of focusing on the best medical options, we’re often forced to pinch pennies and beg permission to provide basic medical care. Eventually, we may stop offering optimal care and begin the march toward compassion fatigue and burnout.

A study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association — http://bit.ly/2CWHYan — revealed that about half of small animal practitioners reported feelings of burnout. Other findings:

  • 77 percent declared that their clients’ economic
  • limitations contributed to professional burnout.
  • 57 percent of veterinarians complained that owners’ economic limitations resulted in less-than-optimal patient treatments at least once a day.
  • 37 percent of general practitioners acknowledged they didn’t offer “ideal treatment options” mainly because of prior experiences with refusal.

These feelings of financial responsibility can wear you down. We’ve got to find better ways than post-dated checks and payment plans to deal with these constant monetary tensions. I’ve found pet insurance to be one of those solutions.

It’s Come a Long Way

Pet insurance has progressed greatly over the past 30 years. Pet owners can choose improved coverage plans, more pets can receive ideal medical care, and veterinarians can be confident that clients will receive better customer service. If you haven’t evaluated pet insurance in a while, I encourage you to discover how good it has become.

Researching, selecting and applying for pet health insurance is incredibly easy. Websites such as www.PetInsuranceReview.com make it easy for pet owners and veterinary teams to learn what policyholders like and dislike about any of the 20 major providers. Since 2005, the website has been my go-to resource for clients and colleagues.

Pet insurers have significantly streamlined the application and reimbursement process for clients. Many provide smartphone apps and simple online signups. I look for companies staffed by licensed veterinarians and veterinary technicians able to answer any questions a veterinarian or pet owner may have. Most clients will be reimbursed within days of filing a claim. Consider that one less thing you or your manager have to worry about.

Don’t Be Silent

Despite the advancements in pet insurance, many veterinary professionals still aren’t recommending coverage. In the same study linking burnout with pet owners’ economic limitations, 44 percent of veterinarians stated that they discussed pet health insurance with less than 10 percent of clients. Only 15 percent of practitioners claimed to mention pet insurance with more than 75 percent of clients. I believe we must do better for both our patients and ourselves.

The reluctance to talk about pet insurance may be rooted in our self-identity. Veterinarians may fear they’re “selling something” or inadvertently putting financial pressure on clients if insurance is mentioned. Perhaps the veterinarian had a bad experience with a previous-generation pet insurer and is concerned that a client will blame her if something goes wrong.

In my opinion, our identity is rooted in providing the best care for the animals we love. My objective is to deliver that care in a way that best benefits my veterinarians, staff, clients and patients. Pet insurance helps me achieve that goal. I don’t consider recommending vaccinations, spay/neuter, dentistry, senior diagnostic tests or pet insurance as “selling.” I consider it my professional obligation and responsibility to my patients. Besides, wouldn’t you rather have a conversation about pet insurance than commiserating over another economic euthanasia?

The Personal Toll

The persistent pressure of pocketbook juggling, accepting compromised clinical recommendations and looking into the eyes of a patient you didn’t have the opportunity to treat take their toll on morale. I’m convinced that the constant barrage of financial fallout is the biggest cause of burnout, compassion fatigue and poor morale in the veterinary profession.

It’s as simple as asking, “Do you have pet insurance?” to every uninsured client every time they enter your clinic. Even if only 10 percent end up choosing to insure their pet, that’s 10 percent fewer clients who will worry about how they’ll afford your services. That’s also 10 percent more financially stress-free encounters your team will deal with, and 10 percent more clients who will be able to follow your doctors’ best plans. Our profession could certainly benefit from less economic uncertainty from clients.

The negative impact that economic euthanasia has on your team can’t be understated. Knowing you could’ve, and probably should’ve, done more for a patient is emotionally erosive to everyone. Receptionists must bill out despondent clients, veterinary nurses nurture aching hearts, and veterinarians carry the burden of self-doubt and defeat. Economic euthanasia inflicts deep pain.

The 80:20 Rule

My personal goal with most things in life follows the 80:20 rule, with a twist. I aim for my practice and personal life to run smoothly and according to plan about 80 percent of the time. I concede that 20 percent is left to forces beyond my control, and I deal with it. To make my 80 percent mark, I must prepare and plan, work strategically and diligently, and remained focused and controlled. I won’t kid you, it’s a lot of work and effort. When the sideways 20 percent hits, I’m as ready as possible. If my days start sliding out of control, I take that as a sign I need to do something different, not a signal that hope is lost. With a little intention, you’ll find that 80 percent is achievable.

I’ve found this approach applies to practice and pet insurance. My longstanding goal has been for about 80 percent of my appointments to be free of monetary woes and centered on the pet’s best interest. To accomplish this, we promoted affordable heartworm and ectoparasite preventives as far back as 1996, implemented standardized wellness packages beginning in 1999, advocated extended-duration vaccine protocols in 2000, and developed first-year puppy/kitten packages and training programs circa 2003.

While all these tactics proved to be beneficial business moves, the primary motivation was to create better a working environment for our staff. Simpler and fewer financial conversations coupled with a clear understanding of the costs meant less fiscal anxiety for our staff. Pet insurance is an important part of the evolution of providing the best patient care while simultaneously making work more enjoyable.

The fact is that insured pets can improve staff morale by helping reduce economic euthanasia and decreasing dreaded money talks. Anyone who works in veterinary practice understands the trepidation associated with a “money case.” Pet insurance can’t eliminate every problem, but it can help you avoid some of them. It also can help you avoid piling up costly outstanding debts that rob cash flow from your business.

You’re Not a Banker

It’s not fair for pet owners to ask veterinary clinics to be credit card companies. Yet that’s exactly what happens every time we hold checks, provide payment plans or accept a promise to “pay you back.” Most independent veterinary clinics simply don’t have the financial resources to offer a majority of clients deferred payments.

If we fail to recommend pet insurance with each uninsured client, we risk having a more challenging money talk later. I’ve always said that for a profession that “isn’t about the money,” we spend an inordinate amount of time negotiating financial matters with our clients. A conversation about pet insurance is infinitely easier than an emotionally charged desperate plea for payment plans and adjustments. Instead of cutting corners and saving nickels when faced with a medical crisis, your team can concentrate on the best treatment options for a particular patient. That’s the best and most important consultation we should have with clients.

Clients Are Inquisitive

It’s important to note that pet owners want to know what you think about pet insurance. Peek in on any pet-oriented social media site. When someone shares how pet insurance covered a pet’s condition, many posters will comment that they had never heard about pet insurance. The next question they have is, “What does it cost? What does it cover?” Those are basic questions that any veterinary professional should be able to answer. Younger pet owners prefer the convenience of online and app-driven pet insurance and will continue to demand better pet health care access.

We must continue to respond to changing pet owner desires and embrace pet insurance as part of every client interaction. If we don’t provide next-gen pet owners with this information, they’re going to get it somewhere. I want our profession to remain relevant in this rapidly emerging world of telehealth and telemedicine, and I believe strongly that pet insurance will be a major driver of change and progress.

The Millennial Era

Pet insurance is critical in encouraging first-time pet ownership. As Millennials gain financial independence, they’re looking for novel ways to care for their pets. They’re looking to pet insurance as a way to afford advanced veterinary care. They realize the amazing technology and advances veterinary medicine has made and want it for their dog or cat. They understand that pet insurance allows them to seek specialists and cutting-edge diagnostics, and ultimately prolong their pets’ quality of life.

Middle-class families are also eager to give their pets the highest quality care. A diagnosis of hip dysplasia, pancreatitis or cancer can be budget busters and force serious comprises. Pet insurance can bridge these financial gaps and avoid painful payment debates. If you fear bringing up pet insurance with an overwhelmed parent of three toddlers, you’re going to hate haggling over life-and-death options with an inconsolable mom frantically figuring out how to tell her husband and children that they don’t have the money to treat Buster. Painfully true. I want to avoid that at all costs for everyone’s sake.

The Emotional Connection

I want to remind you of the emotional connection between pet insurance, our job satisfaction and our ability to provide the best care for pets. The veterinary profession is uniquely challenging. Daily struggles with money and euthanasia top the list of the factors leading to burnout. Third-party payment can help offload some of that stress and free us to do our jobs as healers.

If you find yourself losing enthusiasm and joy in your work, ask yourself if you’re dying a death of a thousand cheap cuts. If so, you may want to explore offering pet insurance to clients. Not in a casual “Here’s a brochure” manner, but in an authentic “Pet insurance may help save your pet’s life (and my staff a lot of stress)” way.

I believe that part of our profession’s future financial solvency is dependent on getting more pets insured. I’m not saying we won’t face challenges during this progression, but I think pet owners will increasingly demand we take it seriously in the years ahead. Take the time to learn more about pet insurance. It just may save your career.

Dr. Ernie Ward is a speaker, entrepreneur and owner of the veterinary consulting firm E3 Management. He serves on the Today’s Veterinary Business editorial advisory board.