Kristi Fender is a freelance writer and editor in Shawnee, Kansas, with a long history of covering animal health and veterinary medicine. She is the former news channel director of dvm360.com and editor-in-chief of dvm360 magazine.Read Articles Written by Kristi Fender
Ask any interested veterinarian about client communication technology trends these days and you’ll inevitably find yourself talking about text messaging. It doesn’t matter if you start out discussing practice management software, smartphone apps or VoIP phone systems — it seems that, increasingly, all communication roads lead to texting. That’s what pet owners want, so that’s what technology companies are going to provide.
This shouldn’t be surprising, really, when you look at broader trends in our society. Healthcare IT News calls SMS (short message service) the “digital health tool of the century”1 and reports that 91 percent of human healthcare patients would prefer to talk to their providers via text messaging.2 Why should it be any different in veterinary medicine?
We talked to two practice owners — one longtime successful veteran and one up-and-comer — to learn about their most common client communication challenges and how technology helps solve them. Both pride themselves on running high-tech hospitals, but both also deeply value personal connection with their clients. Here’s how they make that happen.
1. Bridging the Generational Divide
Rocky Gorge Animal Hospital was founded in Laurel, Maryland, in 1950, and Steven Wolchinsky, DVM, has endeavored to maintain the practice’s old-school community presence since purchasing it in 2005. Now part of the NVA practice group, Rocky Gorge in 2021 is an 18,000-square-foot facility with 17 doctors and nearly 100 employees.
“We’re a crazy-busy, high-tech practice,” Dr. Wolchinsky says. “The question is, how do you keep those old-fashioned values you started with? Most practices lose their way, but it’s been important to me to keep those principles.”
Dr. Wolchinsky says one of his greatest challenges is communicating with different generations of clients according to their preference. “In the past, clients never drove how I ran the practice,” he says. “Even if I had crappy technology, they loved their veterinarian. Now enter the millennials, and they’ve changed everything. They care as much about their pets as baby boomers, but they insist on having things their way.”
In earlier times, baby boomers would call the practice and complain if they didn’t like how something had gone, “whereas millennials just leave,” Dr. Wolchinsky says. “And you never even know they’ve left.”
To keep these younger pet owners happy, practices have to change how they do business — which includes how they communicate. “You have to market and educate and give them the tools to let them communicate the way they want to,” he says. “And that’s where a third-party communication platform comes in.”
One of the things Dr. Wolchinsky appreciates most about the system he uses is that it lets clients choose how they prefer to receive communications, whether phone call, postcard, email, text message or app notification. Older pet owners still want postcards or emails, while younger clients prefer texting. “We don’t have time to figure all that out, but you can’t ignore the generations,” he says. “Try sending an email to a millennial and see what happens.”
Once you know how clients prefer to communicate, you can tailor your marketing and education efforts to the delivery method that’s likely to produce the best results — and avoid getting ghosted by your clients.
“Baby boomers, Gen-Xers, millennials, whatever — they all want things differently,” Dr. Wolchinsky says. “So it’s important that our technology be flexible. You want each client to get the information they need and do business the way they want to. To me that’s the most important thing. Then pets get what they need. You can’t operate effectively these days without that.”
2. Uncovering a Hidden Client Desire
On the opposite side of the U.S., Steven Manyak, DVM, owns Pine Animal Hospital, which he launched in Long Beach, California, in 2013. He makes a point of trying new technologies and maintaining a cutting-edge approach to medicine and client relations. Several years ago he implemented a VoIP (voice over internet protocol) telecommunication platform with text messaging capabilities, and the results surprised even a technophile like him.
“It was absolutely shocking how rapidly text messaging took over,” Dr. Manyak says. “It changed seemingly 30 minutes after we went live with [our new system]. It was that rapid, that remarkable, and now I would say three-quarters of our communication with clientele is through the text messaging platform.”
Dr. Manyak attributes the rapid change to the fact that his clientele in Long Beach lean younger and prefer texting for most types of interactions. Part of what made the transition so painless is that his front desk team could receive and send text messages through the office computer using the practice phone number. This has made the team more efficient — it’s easy to read and respond to a text message between other tasks, while a phone conversation normally requires at least 10 minutes of focused attention.
“Instead of having voicemail set up with different messages and instead of having what we want our receptionists to be verbally saying to our clients, now we have these typed-up messages where we just copy and paste into a little screen that then goes out to clients,” Dr. Manyak says.
3. Relieving a Dental Pain Point
Dr. Manyak found that transitioning his clientele to text messaging has also helped in a common clinical scenario that most veterinarians face at some point.
“When we do our dentals, we always have to call the client in the middle of the procedure,” he says. “The way we practice is that we don’t tell them exactly what the treatment will be until after a full exam and X-rays under anesthesia.”
Of course, many of those calls go unanswered. “It has been one of those common pain points,” Dr. Manyak says. “Clients don’t have their phone right there to pick it up, or they’re in a meeting, or they’re busy. And we’re like, ‘Your pet’s under anesthesia. We need to get the OK on this ASAP. Now. Immediately.’”
These days, when the client doesn’t pick up the phone call, Dr. Manyak sends a text message that states something similar to, “We’re done with the exam and X-rays. I really need to talk to you to get your approval on treatment, so please call me as soon as possible.” Text messages “pop up in your face,” he says, and clients find a way to return the call once they realize the urgency.
Dr. Manyak can also send a text informing the client that he has sent an email with dental radiographs featuring AI interpretation of problems that need to be addressed, along with a treatment estimate for the total cost from the practice management software.
“Emailing those dental radiographs has done wonders,” he says. “For clients to see those images and the problem and why we need to pull that tooth … it’s just huge. They’ve got all the information right in front of them, then we can talk on a phone call or Zoom session about whether they want to do it or not.”
Dr. Manyak says the technology that brings all the information together — radiographs, AI findings, costs, etc. — enhances client compliance. The pet owner has all the information they need to make an informed decision, which means they’re more likely to make the right decision about the pet’s care.
The Bottom Line
What both of these doctors emphasize is that technology is a way to enhance communication, not replace it.
“To be successful in veterinary medicine, you have to have the right technology and be on the cutting edge, but you have to remember that technology changes,” Dr. Wolchinsky says. “What doesn’t change is human nature. When it comes to our pets, we all want the same things. We all love our pets the same.
“The feeling our pets give us inside — that’s universal. We use these technological tools and get excited about them, but we can’t lose sight of what human nature really is.”
Telemedicine helps solo practitioner see more clients in a day — and get paid for her time and expertise.
Crista Wallis, DVM, owner of Monticello Animal Hospital in Shawnee, Kansas, hated turning clients away on busy days. But as the practice’s lone veterinarian, she didn’t have much choice. There are only so many appointment slots in a day. But one day she heard a veterinary conference speaker discuss telemedicine.
“I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be great if I had a way to triage my clients who call in instead of turning them away?’” Dr. Wallis says. She soon realized that telemedicine could also be a boon to her exotic patients that can become dangerously stressed when transported to the clinic, her anxious dog and cat patients, and her own wellbeing, since it would enable her to leave the hospital once in a while to take a vacation.
“Those were all reasons I started doing telemedicine,” Dr. Wallis says. “And, of course, it’s great to get paid for our advice and grow the bottom line.”
When first implementing telemedicine, Dr. Wallis discovered that clients were uninterested in videoconferencing, which surprised her. But one day she noticed her niece texting her friends, and a lightbulb went on. “I said, ‘I can still do this. I just need to change up the way I communicate,’” she says.
Once she and her team settled on the right technology solution — one that prioritized asynchronous texting — they practiced using it with one another, and then the staff started marketing the new service.
“When clients called in, my team told them they now had the option to talk to me, the doctor, for a small fee, or they could leave a message for the technician as usual,” Dr. Wallis says. “That worked really well.”
In the four years Monticello has been using telemedicine, the team has received almost entirely positive feedback. Clients hear back through the app faster than they would if they had to wait for a phone call, which means their problems get solved faster. The hospital has also gathered a following of people who are deaf, since the chat feature is ideally suited for their needs. And when COVID hit in spring 2020, the practice was already set up to see clients remotely. “It was a godsend when everything went crazy,” Dr. Wallis says.
She says telemedicine will never take the place of the in-person physical exam; its value comes in determining whether an animal needs to be seen in the hospital and what the urgency level is.
When a patient does come in, she can get right to work with tests and procedures, which results in a more efficient use of her time. All this adds up to a healthier bottom line for the practice and better patient care.
“Not only do we get paid for our advice, but if I recommend a therapy through telemedicine, clients will 100 percent do it,” Dr. Wallis says. “For some reason it increases compliance, which means we get to practice better medicine.”
- Sullivan T. Healthcare IT News. SMS: The digital health tool of the century. healthcareitnews.com/news/sms-digital-health-tool-century. Published June 2017. Accessed May 2021.
- Eddy N. Healthcare IT News. How patients really want to communicate with doctors. healthcareitnews.com/news/how-patients-really-want-communicate-doctors. Published February 2019. Accessed May 2021.