Ben Wolin is the president and CEO of Covetrus Inc.Read Articles Written by Ben Wolin
Like so many industries, the veterinary community has experienced enormous changes over the past 18 months. Driving the transformation has been a pandemic-fueled boom in pet ownership, forcing veterinarians and the entire industry to evolve how they provide care while remaining focused on the best patient outcomes. Fortunately, veterinarians have excelled in meeting the challenge. Whether accommodating pet parents with a drive-up and drop-off care model to limit COVID-19 risks or enabling digital support tools, veterinarians have helped millions of pets and pet parents during these unprecedented times.
Yet, while the veterinarian community has been busy caring for animals and running their clinics, industry retail giants have capitalized on a changing cyber-driven landscape. The most significant change has been the attempt by online retailers to disintermediate veterinarians and offer their own form of anonymized care. Traditionally, pet owners have purchased prescription medication directly from their veterinarian, ensuring a comprehensive medical experience for their pets. Now, online retailers are stepping in and attempting to take care delivery into their own hands by recommending and selling prescription medications online. Although veterinarians still have to approve the prescription, these approval requests originate from online retailers and often come without the benefit of an in-person veterinary exam or diagnosis.
This reality is concerning for a variety of reasons, none more so than the potential impact to a pet’s health and well-being.
Routine veterinary care, including preventive care, leads to an overall increased animal life expectancy and a better quality of life, according to the American Animal Hospital Association. The more that veterinarians are removed from managing important aspects of a pet’s care, including assessing and evaluating prescriptions, the more opportunity there is for a breakdown in the care being provided. It is also perilous for pet parents, who may inadvertently put their pet at risk by not realizing the importance of wellness checks for catching undiagnosed conditions or who face the increased likelihood of an improper medication from a third-party pharmacy when their veterinarian isn’t allowed to provide guidance.
Beyond the obvious health risks, the economic impact to local veterinarians is significant. Prescription medications and regulated pet foods make up a substantial proportion of a veterinary clinic’s sales. These sales enable veterinarians to keep their businesses financially healthy so that they can focus on providing care at accessible prices. But as pet owners take these purchases directly to online retailers, this critical revenue stream for veterinarians diminishes, breeding difficult decisions for veterinarians, such as being forced to increase costs for basic, routine visits or even going out of business entirely.
Veterinarians have a powerful advantage over third-party pharmacies: Pet parents trust their veterinarians above all. Clients know that veterinary professionals have the compassion and expertise that give pets a better quality of life, while online retailers lack the ability to address individual needs. Every study shows that pet parents want modern care centered around their trusted local veterinarian.
Still, pet parents are increasingly turning to online shopping, and that in turn has put a new burden on veterinarians and their teams, who are spending hours reviewing outside prescription requests from online retailers. This inflated workload overwhelms busy clinics and diverts resources from providing care to patients.
These issues are not new; however, they have been dramatically accelerated by the pandemic.
So, what can and should be done?
First, we need to protect the crucial relationship between veterinarians and their patients. This means increasing the number of touchpoints and interactions a veterinarian has with pets, whether in person or online. Simply stated, outside of pet owners, no one knows an animal as well as its veterinarian. At every opportunity, we must find ways to strengthen that relationship and keep veterinarians at the center of care.
Second, we need to ensure that veterinarians can effectively manage their patients’ care needs, including prescription management, without adding work to their already-busy practices. This includes pairing e-commerce systems that can meet consumers’ preferences to buy and shop online with integrated systems that allow for quick and easy fulfillment of medications, such as preventives directly from a veterinarian’s office.
Finally, as a community, we must recognize that if the relationship between veterinarians and pets continues to be disintermediated by outside players that don’t have a direct role in care, there could be long-term consequences to the entire pet care industry.
So, we must commit together to protect the critical role of veterinarians and continue to seek innovative solutions that will help veterinarians serve pets and meet evolving consumer expectations.