Debbie Boone is the owner of 2 Manage Vets Consulting and the 2022 president of VetPartners. She has worked in the veterinary profession for more than 35 years as a practice manager, consultant and speaker. She enjoys improving both workplace culture and the well-being of veterinary professionals. She hosts “The Bend,” a vodcast that invites guests to share stories of resilience over adversity. Learn more at dboone2managevets.comRead Articles Written by Debbie Boone
Country music singer Tom T. Hall’s 1972 song “Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine” included the famous line “Old dogs care about you even when you make mistakes.” That still rings true. Older pets are a blessing, and keeping them healthy and comfortable is a mutual goal of their owners and veterinarians. But senior pets can develop multiple conditions as they age, reducing their quality of life and shortening their life span. Proactive preventive care can help.
The American Animal Hospital Association’s Senior Care Guidelines Task Force defined senior dogs and cats as those in the last 25% of the predicted life span for their species and breed. According to the guidelines, elderly pets should see a veterinarian every six months. (Learn more at bit.ly/3pfkDut.)
Given the recommended frequency of senior pet visits, how can veterinary teams persuade clients to comply and make the care affordable? (Even well-to-do clients hesitate to say “yes.”) The first step is always education. Veterinary teams must support their treatment plans with client-friendly information to get pet owners on board and then offer payment options.
The Subscription Solution
One way to manage the expense of senior veterinary care is with a subscription wellness plan. Many corporate practices thrive with the offering, while some independent clinics find preventive care plans difficult to manage internally and the discounts too severe to be sustainable. Still, well-built wellness plans can be a wonderful way to monitor well-loved elderly critters.
According to “The Veterinarian’s Guide to Healthy Pet Plans,” co-authored by Dr. Wendy Hauser and me, plans that clients pay for monthly:
- Create loyalty by supporting a one-year commitment to the practice.
- Increase the number of patient visits.
- Help in the early detection of disease.
- Overcome financial pushback.
- Enhance the quality of patient care when properly constructed.
- Offer market differentiation.
Veterinarians know that older animals cost more to monitor and maintain than young adult patients. For example, ASPCA insurance claims data shows that veterinary care for a 1-year-old, medium-size, mixed-breed dog costs $1,091 on average, while at age 10, the average is $2,236. As a result, how can veterinary teams assist uninsured clients in building a realistic medical care strategy for their older pets?
Jules Benson, BVSc, MRCVS, the chief veterinary officer at Nationwide pet health insurance, has a suggestion.
“I know from my experience as a practitioner that removing financial barriers to care makes an enormous difference in pet health outcomes and to a veterinarian’s professional and personal satisfaction,” Dr. Benson said. “It is not just the animals that benefit but also our team members.”
To overcome clients’ price pushback, many practice information management systems can build a custom plan for each patient. In addition, companies like Idexx Laboratories (Petly Plans) and Covetrus (Veterinary Care Plans) offer wellness care platforms, while another one, VetBilling, handles the monthly payments.
A Package Deal
The simplest way to build a custom plan is to base it on an individual patient’s needs over a specified time frame, usually a year. Lindsay Peltier, CVT, the practice manager at Centerville Veterinary Hospital in Oregon, created such plans knowing that, as she put it, “Cookie-cutter plans are for cookie-cutter pets.” Centerville’s medical team devises treatment plans for one year of care and divides the cost by 12. Client compliance is excellent and the sticker shock reduced, Peltier said.
On a more generic scale, practices can build senior and geriatric plans. I advise using components of the guidelines available from AAHA, the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Association of Feline Practitioners. For example, annual dental cleanings, CBC and T4 tests, serum biochemistry bloodwork, EKGs, UAs and blood pressure monitoring are recommended for older feline patients.
The practice owner and veterinarians should determine a protocol for senior patients and build a wellness package around must-have services while taking into account the clientele, the practice’s philosophy, available equipment and staff training.
Many practices include preventive medications in their plans, but the downside of dispensing 12 months of medicine at once is that the client might cancel the subscription before paying for the product in full. The best option, in that case, is to ship monthly doses through your online pharmacy. A similar path for chronic conditions can be followed with NSAIDs, hormone therapy, heart medications and even prescription diets.
Make Sure You Make Money
Subscription wellness plans are typically discounted, so be sure to do the math to remain profitable. Dr. Hauser once reviewed a clinic’s plan and found only $8 in profit after one year of patient services.
To price plans profitably, practice owners and managers must know the actual cost of their services. Here’s one way to charge for a rabies vaccination: Add up the expense of the vaccine, syringe, needle and DVM compensation and multiply by your desired profit margin. It’s that easy. I recommend calculating payroll costs by the minute.
Some practices might be willing to take a loss on some plan components, like free examinations, or offer flat-rate discounts on out-of-plan services. Losses and discounts are acceptable if the entire package is profitable (more than $8!).
One benefit of strategically reduced pricing is that it can lead to greater acceptance of services outside of the wellness plan. For instance, if you include a discounted blood chemistry test and find early kidney disease, the lower fee is justified when the client approves additional treatments.
Believe In It
The most critical factor in the success of senior wellness plans is the team’s conviction in the patient benefits. Most plans paid by the month fail because the team is not well trained. Everyone from the receptionist to the veterinarian must believe that patients need the services and that clients will be well served by taking advantage of them.
To illustrate, consider Simon Sinek’s book “Start With Why,” where he described the Golden Circle. Starting from the inside, the Golden Circle has these three concentric rings:
- Why: Because we love and care for animals and want them to live a comfortable life.
- How: By offering the best medicine, diagnostics, pain control, preventive care and proper nutrition in an affordable format.
- What: Because we operate a veterinary hospital, and it’s what we do. If a practice begins with “what,” the team will never commit to the overall message, and the wellness plan will fail.
Senior wellness plans are a win for the patient, practice and pet owner. Their implementation helps senior pets enjoy an excellent quality of life. After all, age is just a number.
According to the “The Veterinary Fee Reference, 11th Edition,” 34% of practices discount medical services for senior citizen clients. The average markdown is 9%.