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A golden opportunity

The human-animal bond has brought monumental change to the veterinary industry. You can run with the pack and enjoy the riches, or you can be a slow-to-react naysayer.

A golden opportunity
Most veterinarians and their organizations are not built for success, let alone how to sustain it.

Can veterinarians handle success? That’s a silly question, right? Of course, veterinarians can handle success, just like anyone else. But are you sure? Does handling success only mean applauding and cashing the checks while success unfolds around you? Or does it involve understanding the fundamentals of why success is occurring and then evaluating and implementing the steps needed to sustain success over the long run?

I’ve been involved with animal health care for 15 years. Sadly, I say “no,” most veterinarians and their organizations are not built for success, let alone how to sustain it.

What do I mean? Here’s a simple test: Do veterinarians embrace or resist change? Everyone knows that most (not all) veterinarians resist change. Why they do this is the heart of the matter and raison d’être for this article. The world around us, particularly with pets, has changed dramatically. Mimicking Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh stories by moaning that the good times can’t last isn’t a viable go-forward strategy.

Welcome to the Future

Veterinarians do not believe in the future or, more precisely, do not trust that the future values veterinary care. People are above animals and physicians are above veterinarians, right? That’s the flaw: a bipolar view that separates or distinguishes animals from people. The human-animal bond (thanks to HABRI) has changed this view, and my book, “Pet Nation,” makes clear that this isn’t a fad. Pet dogs and cats are no longer accessories (important for a while but disposable), nor are they afterthoughts or sideline characters in a movie script built around humans.

Pets are social glue and central to individual and community health. The physical and medical well-being of our pets is a human and community concern, not an animal concern. The new generation of pet owners wants and will pay for health care for their pets just like they do for themselves.

It’s that simple, yet light-years from where America stood in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, the decades when baby boom and Generation X veterinarians were trained. It’s as different as going from black and white to color television (which a boomer can appreciate) or from landlines to smartphones.

What Pet Owners Want

The cultural and social structure of pets in America has been transformed over 20 years, and veterinarians are the prime beneficiaries, yet they resist adapting and creating new service-delivery models to embrace the trend. It’s like standing on third base, watching a teammate hit a home run to deliver the winning score and refusing to run to home plate.

Pet health care has been transformed from a veterinarian-centric model — “Come to my clinic on my terms and get what I provide the way I choose to provide it” — to a pet-owner-centric model.

What pet owners are saying is: “Here’s what I want, I’ll pay for it almost regardless of cost, but don’t make me conform to your old model. I want something different, and I’ll find it if you aren’t willing to work with me.”

Pet owners have been swept up in the cultural and social shift that places the pet in a central (make that essential) role in families and households. Pet health care providers need to respect this.

Business Is Booming

Three forces test whether veterinarians, perhaps because of COVID, will break out of their historic pattern and welcome changes that sustain success. What success am I referring to? Most veterinary practices have grown during the pandemic compared with their 2019 performance. America’s pet population has expanded and pet owners are demanding more and better care, including telemedicine. The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times published stories heralding the trends as long term, identifying the pet health sector as one of the chosen few to thrive during and after the height of COVID.

The three forces for change are:

  • Moving forward, not backward, with virtual care or telemedicine, and recognizing that its successful adoption in human health care can serve as a model.
  • Addressing the fundamental problems with how veterinary nurses are utilized and compensated. This means allowing vet techs to use all their training and board-certified skills at pay levels that sustain retention as well as creating a midlevel extender through a master’s degree.
  • Addressing the acute shortage of veterinarians by increasing college class sizes. This can be done in part by accreditors’ recognizing fundamental changes in teaching methodologies. We cannot grow the profession if we do not grow class sizes.

Success Awaits

Do you have a problem with increased demand for veterinary services, rising demand for high-performing professionals and the cultural shift in the value of pets and their health care? You shouldn’t. The choices veterinarians make in responding to these changes will say a great deal about the profession, but even more importantly about what veterinarians think about their clients.

At a recent meeting of the Nevada Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners, long-time practitioners treated telemedicine like it was the end of the world, dismissing the notion that millennials and Generation Zers want anything different for the care of their pets. I’ve never watched a baseball game where more batters swung and missed by a mile than that day in Nevada.

No one should assume that change will be welcomed by all, but it doesn’t have to be.

We need just enough veterinary practices to respond to the needs and opportunities generated by the three forces for change. The success of innovators will pull the profession along.

So, what will it be?

Politics & Policy columnist Mark Cushing is a political strategist, lawyer and  founding partner of the Animal Policy Group. He serves on the Today’s Veterinary Business editorial advisory board and is the author of “Pet Nation: The Love Affair That Changed America.”