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Chapter 15: Tales from the COVID-19 front lines

“In the face of the current normal, being busy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The busyness is not necessarily good for business.”

Chapter 15: Tales from the COVID-19 front lines

This week: Dr. Peter Weinstein on the best and worst of times, Dr. Wendy Hauser on communicating lifetime cost of care, Wendy S. Myers on credit card fees, and much more.

Read the first 14 installments in this series:

Chapter 1  Chapter 2  Chapter 3  Chapter 4  Chapter 5  Chapter 6
Chapter 7  Chapter 8  Chapter 9  Chapter 10  Chapter 11  Chapter 12  Chapter 13  Chapter 14

Veterinary industry consultant and Southern California Veterinary Medical Association executive director Peter Weinstein, DVM, MBA

It was the best of times.

Practices bragged about having their best day, best week or best month ever. Who would’ve thought that was yesterday, last week or June? Regular clients couldn’t get in for a week or a month. Who would’ve thought that was the new normal?

I hear how practices are so busy. They need more staff, they’re not seeing new clients, and they’re working beyond their capacity. Reports indicate revenue growth happening almost universally around the United States. On the other hand, transaction numbers aren’t growing at the same rate.

In the face of the current normal, being busy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The busyness is not necessarily good for business. Although revenue is growing, more often than not profit is not growing at the same pace.

It was the worst of times.

The harder you work and the more you sweat, the more complaints that clients seem to have. They don’t like to sit in their cars. They want to see what’s going on. They don’t want to wait an hour, two hours, six hours, to be seen. “What do you mean I can’t ….?” “I don’t care what you say, you always let me do that before.” “Why are things so expensive?” “Don’t you know we are in a pandemic? Can’t you cut me some slack?”

Staff members are pitching in, working crazy shifts and dealing with challenging situations amid the specter of a potentially fatal virus. And staff members are taking the bullets either directly through car windows and masks or indirectly on Yelp, Facebook and other media. The stress of being busy and of client’s unattainable expectations is an added 100-pound weight on the shoulders of the entire veterinary hospital team.

No matter how great you are doing, nothing seems to be good enough. The complimentary clients — 99% of them — are not remembered. The aggravating, irritating, unable to please, prima donna clients leave indelible marks on you.

Celebrating now is hard, nor is it safe. When it is time to celebrate — listen up, owners, managers, administrators and party planners — break out the fireworks, streamers, party favors and celebratory drinks and party like it’s 1999. (Thank you, Prince).

Crum & Forster Pet Insurance Group assistant vice president of veterinary relations Wendy Hauser, DVM

It seems the desire to welcome a new puppy into a home during COVID-19 isn’t just an American trend. I serve on a pet genetics advisory board for a company based in Australia. The company has been experiencing unparalleled demand for parentage genetics testing in puppies, a requirement for sale in some Australian states. It seems everyone in Australia wants a puppy.

During COVID-19, how are you establishing bonds with puppy owners? There are a few tips to help when communicating with your new clients:

  1. Use a relational interaction style. Coach all team members to use the client’s name and puppy’s name during conversations that start when the client first contacts your hospital, and throughout subsequent visits. This seems intuitive but is rarely practiced in day-to-day operations.
  2. Present information in terms of how a recommendation benefits the health and well-being of the pet. For example, rather than saying, “We recommend that you give heartworm preventive on a monthly basis,” try “Mrs. Smith, we are certain that you want to protect Ginger the best way you can, and so do we. We recommend that you administer a monthly heartworm preventive to help protect her from getting heartworm disease, which can be fatal. This medicine also helps protect her from intestinal worms that can make her sick, like hookworms and roundworms. What questions do you have?”
  3. Set up clients to understand the costs of pet ownership over the animal’s lifetime. In hospital examination rooms, we are very good at explaining how much recommendations cost when there is a clear need for the service. Rarely do most hospitals preemptively educate owners about the cost of pet ownership. These are not long conversations, and they can sound like: “Mrs. Smith, our clients appreciate knowing what the lifetime cost of care looks like for their pets so that they can be prepared. Typically, Ginger’s first year of life will cost a little more because she needs multiple wellness visits, vaccinations and spaying. Barring unforeseen accidents, care for years one through five will cost less and mainly be preventive treatments to keep her healthy. At age 6 we will want to see her more frequently as we find that early disease detection allows us to proactively manage disease rather than react to it. What questions do you have?”

Communication Solutions for Veterinarians founder Wendy S. Myers, CVJ

I am frequently getting this question from practice owners and managers: “Our hospital is still doing curbside care. We take payments over the phone. We’re paying a much higher merchant fee for manually processed credit cards. Do you have any solutions?”

Yes! I recently talked with a veterinarian who owns a four-doctor practice in Indiana. He’s paying $1,200 or more per month in additional charges for manually processed credit cards. Most merchant providers charge a 2% or higher additional fee for manually processed credit cards. If your regular merchant fee is 3%, providers are charging you 5%, which can quickly add up.

First, talk with your business bank or merchant provider about mobile and “text or email to pay” options. If they offer the service, adding it will be fast and easy.

Let me share three resources that have payment link options.

  1. Pay Junction (www.payjunction.com) has contactless payments with a zero-touch terminal and does remote payments. Last week I provided training at a Detroit practice that is doing curbside care. It was my first business trip since early March. When the curbside visit was finished, the client care staff called to review the invoice over the phone and collect payment. Pay Junction integrates with the hospital’s EasyJet practice management software. The client care coordinator would tell the client, “On your last visit, you used a Visa ending in 1234. Shall I use that same card today?” Pay Junction securely stores the client’s credit card, and employees see only the last four digits. It’s been a huge time and cost savings for the hospital compared to manually keying credit card numbers.
  2. Open Edge (www.globalpaymentsintegrated.com) has “text or email to pay” services.
  3. Gravity Payments (www.gravitypayments.com) has mobile and point-of-sale options.

Besides helping during curbside care, you could use “text or email to pay” for house-call euthanasia’s, farm calls and even exam room checkouts.

PetDesk director of strategic partnerships Branon Hanono

Veterinarians have been an exception to much of COVID-19’s impact on local businesses. Practices have been deemed essential businesses, revenue is up and we’ve seen practices reporting their best revenue months into the crisis.

Practice owners and managers are considering entering the murky waters of reopening waiting rooms and letting clients into the building. Depending on their location, owners and managers encounter a new permissiveness and expectations from communities to function as normal. Add on the overflow of appointments and there is a lot of pressure to return to normal.

Veterinarians are empathetic medical professionals, and the risks associated with the pandemic are not lost on them. Bringing operations back to normal, whether by allowing exceptions to curbside care or reverting to pre-COVID management, presents a risk to the community. It also means a threat to business and staff.

We have had a handful of customers report closures of at least four days as they await the results of tests on staff members who reported disease symptoms. Losing four days or more if the tests are positive is a massive setback for clients with scheduled appointments, not to mention the lost revenue for the practices.

We know the right course includes a focus on your team members’ physical and psychological well-being. Your clients will understand. Your team will be there for them when they need you the most.

The Vet Recruiter founder and CEO Stacy Pursell, CPC, CERS

Anyone who says there is not a shortage of veterinarians is not in the trenches of the marketplace. There is a shortage of veterinarians today and for years now.

My phone rings all day with calls from practices that need to hire a veterinarian, and many tell me they have been looking for months. Some practice owners tell me they had to turn away potential clients because they were short a veterinarian or two. Some said they had to reduce operating hours because they couldn’t find enough people to cover the hours.

Look at U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data and you can see that the veterinary profession is growing in the numbers of jobs and will continue to do so. We are not keeping up with the supply and demand.

One veterinarian told me that business is up more than 70% during COVID. It’s good that our industry is growing even during the pandemic.

I don’t know what the last quarter of this year will look like given impending corporate layoffs, which I expect will be large. I expect the end of the economic stimulus to impact our industry if another stimulus doesn’t get passed. But for now, despite the pandemic, veterinary hospitals are busy and there are many job openings.

Getting Technical columnist, practice management consultant and Patterson Veterinary University instructor Sandy Walsh, RVT, CVPM

In my neck of the woods, the more things change the more they stay the same. Practices are extremely busy. The hospital teams have adapted and continue to serve clients in a complete or modified curbside fashion. Regular clients have adapted as well. It’s organized chaos. Practice loyalty has never been so important. Everyone wants to accommodate established clients, and most are able to do so although same-day appointments for anything other than urgent care are virtually nonexistent. Same-week appointments are even a stretch.

Clients without a regular veterinarian are creating more stress for practices. They are calling around to find one that can get them in, and they have little patience or understanding when told they can’t be accommodated immediately. It’s very difficult to turn clients away when we’re in the business of helping animals.

Teams are stressed, depressed and exhausted. Long days, little time off and fear of COVID have taken a toll. California is seeing a spike in positive COVID cases. Even with precautions in place, more and more practices are experiencing COVID firsthand with employees testing positive. Closing for a few days to clean and sanitize is the norm. The result is an increase in the number of anxious clients looking to get their pets in somewhere else as their appointments are canceled or rescheduled.

With the new school year about to start, parents of school-age children are scrambling to figure out how to home-school and still earn a paycheck. Flexibility in staff schedules will be the key to maintaining adequate staffing levels.

Despite all this, we’re hanging in there but are still looking for that light at the end of the tunnel.

Today’s Veterinary Nurse editor-in-chief Kara Burns, MS, MEd, LVT, VTS (Nutrition)

Who could have imagined what 2020 would be like? It is now August and the pandemic rages on. With about 4.7 million people in the U.S. testing positive for Sars-CoV-2 and predictions from top health experts that the infection rate, and thus the mortality rate, will continue to climb, people remain stressed and anxious.

Over the past three weeks, I continued to hear from colleagues across the nation that their hospitals were busier than ever. Some hospitals are short-staffed due to the pandemic or team members staying home because of family concerns and commitments. Still, the majority of hospitals are seeing more patients and increased caseloads. This coupled with new protocols to ensure the practice of veterinary medicine while keeping colleagues and clients safe, along with increasingly frustrated and impolite clients, is resulting in even more stress, fatigue and burnout.

Veterinary team members from practice owners to veterinary nurses to receptionists are trying to support each other and maintain positivity. However, the sheer volume of business has become overwhelming for many hospitals.

The veterinary team is essential. They are health care heroes working not only for the good of the pet but also for the good of the pet owner and community. Pets are helping to get many humans through these unprecedented times. So, shouldn’t we focus on helping the veterinary team?

Veterinary teams, thank you for your commitment to animals and the people who love them. Thank you for going to work every day to care for the pets that are so important to our health and our sanity. Thank you for caring for pets, livestock, food production and safety, and for your work in every aspect of veterinary medicine. It is too bad that human nature is such that in trying times people revert to anger and frustration rather than appreciation for all that is being done. Thank you to the teams that are working to lift each other up. This helps us to keep going. Thank you for your compassion and care. Our communities and our pets are better for it because of you.

We are all in this together. Be kind to one another.

Creative Disruption columnist and WellHaven Pet Health chief medical officer Bob Lester, DVM

As the pandemic grinds into month six and beyond, it’s clear that we’re in for a protracted battle. In a profession already suffering from issues of well-being, the importance of self-care becomes even more critical. While continuing to help pets and families, we must first take care of ourselves before we can take care of others.

I came across a list of timely and instructive self-care myths from the Lead Well with Women website.

Myth: Self-care comes after I’ve finished everything else.

Truth: Self-care is essential if I want to stay healthy enough to do everything else.

Myth: It’s selfish to take care of myself before others.

Truth: Self-care makes it possible for me to have healthy relationships and be present for the activities and people I care about.

Myth: I’ll get lazy if I don’t keep pushing myself or hold myself to high standards.

Truth: Being kind to myself and holding myself to reasonable standards makes it possible for me to feel success, manage defeat and stay motivated.

Myth: I can’t afford a healthy lifestyle.

Truth: While some expenses may be out of reach right now, there are many things I can do for myself today.

Myth: There are things I have to do that no one else can do, or that others expect me to do. Truth: I bring a lot of experience and skills to my life, but I don’t have to do everything. Delegating helps others develop the skills they need to succeed, too. In the words of the great Dr. Seuss, “Be who you are and say how you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.”

Thanks for all you do. Take care of yourself.

We want to hear from you: How has the COVID-19 emergency affected you, your practice or your veterinary business? Email editor Ken Niedziela at [email protected].

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