A thriving relevant veterinary profession must include “roots” and “shoots”

How to repot ourselves both personally and as a profession, to push out vibrant new growth and bear bumper fruit

The first veterinary school in the U.S. was the Veterinary College of Philadelphia, established in 1852. With over a century and a half of formal existence, our profession has been like the acorn growing into the mighty oak. Since our acorn days, it can be argued veterinarians have had the greatest influence on the massive spending on pets, revenues that were equal to half of Amazon’s gross revenues in 2016 and still about 40 percent in 2017.

While we stand “tall and sturdy” with a great root system of respect, trust, and relevance holding up the profession in general, and most practices specifically (given the small number of closures), we risk withering unless we also push out shoots in the form of new growth.

Let me do some shorthand here: Shoots equals $hoot$. By this, I mean creating value and generating the dollars necessary to pay off student loans, invest in new equipment/technologies/training, pay living wages for staff, send kids to college, take vacations, and be able to give philanthropically. Shorthand again: To thrive, and not just survive.

There’s an old Chinese saying that “Falling leaves return to their roots.” Google it and you’ll see it has several meanings, including returning to your hometown to die, stumbling in life and going home for help, and my favorite: the re-nourishment of things that pass, resulting in new growth.

In his speech ending his long tenure as the executive director of the American Veterinary Medical Association, Bruce Little, DVM, talked about having walked across bridges others had built. All of us have benefited from the roots laid down and leaves fallen by every veterinarian who’s practiced since the mid-19th century. But while we can still stand tall on the strong root system they built—trust, respect, admiration, influence, and relevance—to meet the challenges of today, we can’t just maintain the root system. We have to repot ourselves both personally and as a profession, to push out vibrant new growth and bear bumper fruit. Let’s call it a roots-and-shoots dream with deadlines.

I used to teach a class yearly at Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and did so one year when Auburn fans celebrated a big football victory around the iconic 113-year-old Toomer’s Corner oak trees.

Called “rolling Toomer’s Corner,” these trees would be festooned by Tiger fans with hundreds of rolls of toilet paper. I was saddened to read in 2010 about somebody poisoning these trees with a herbicide, killing them. An Iron Bowl rival from the University of Alabama was charged and convicted. The oak trees were replanted in 2015 across from the 120-year-old Toomer’s Drug Store (for which Toomer’s Corner is named). In 2016 after an Auburn football win over rival Louisiana State University (which resulted in only the second time the new trees had been “rolled”), an intoxicated 29-year-old set one of the trees on fire by lighting the toilet paper, severely damaging it.

What’s this have to do with veterinary medicine? While still standing tall, we’re getting a little wobbly with our veterinary root system under attack from many poisons and fires. Here are some of them:

The internet and “Dr.” Google
Need I say more here? Apparently, these are the defacto pet health experts in the cloud.

Pet stores
Pets like to go to pet stores—they smell like happy pets, they’re full of treats and toys, and dogs even get to pee on things if they’re quick enough. Because the pets are happy, their humans like to take them there, which means many pet owners no longer or seldom include their veterinarian’s office in their buying pattern. That’s why most discretionary pet health dollars are spent in those businesses and not ours. We are losing relevance as a profession, considering the public sees the pet store employee as the pet health expert.

From mobile apps and Skype exams to things in development that would blow our minds, busy pet owners are embracing technologies and services that save time and money and don’t require a stressful trip to a veterinary practice.

Shortage of DVMs and veterinary nurses
Tried to hire a veterinarian lately? A veterinary nurse (CVT, LVT, RVT)? They’re rare as the Elvis of the bird world, the ivory-billed woodpecker. Two factors are going to make things worse, not better: First, there are 1.4 applicants for every opening in veterinary school (scary, huh?!). Second, according to the 2016 National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America Demographic survey, 56 percent of licensed veterinary nurses leave the profession after five years.

Yet, we don’t have to just try and survive the status quo. Don’t think we have to stay in storms, with no sunlight to make us grow, push out new growth, and bear fruit. We can embrace new strategies to create a “status grow,” where we meet challenges head-on and mine new opportunities.

Let me give you some concrete examples of how to thrive in the paradigm of veterinary medicine. These are gleaned from Julie Reck, DVM, a veterinarian who owns the Veterinary Medical Center of Ft. Mill, S.C., and who is an emerging superstar poised to help create a “road to riches,” where the veterinary profession can be financially successful and emotionally wealthy.

Proven in the trenches of her practice, here are her top five tactics and tips for success:

1) Always look to add value. In every interaction and opportunity, first look where you can add value to the situation or person. When you prioritize adding value over “what can this situation/person do for me,” opportunities will develop that can positively impact your professional and financial future.

2) Deliver an experience. The modern economy is quickly evolving, and customer service may not be enough to sustain the profitability of a veterinary practice. Focus on delivering a memorable and positive experience each time you interact with a customer.

3) Fail forward fast. Every veterinarian has made countless mistakes since opening a practice. Quickly recognizing failures and learning from those situations and decisions allows them to move forward with their own personal development, as well as the development of their practice. Invest in leadership.

4) Harnessing the profitability of staff engagement through leadership is uncharted territory in veterinary practice management. When the staff is included in the development of the ideal patient or client experience, they have more “buy in” and are dedicated to helping the practice move toward that goal. Staff members see themselves as players on a team or members of a family, all of which are equally important to achieve practice growth.

5) Be a “learn-it-all,” rather than a “know-it-all.” It is easy to convince yourself you have seen it all. If we challenge ourselves to be hungry for more information and to constantly learn, we are likely to discover new opportunities for our practices and profession.

Marty Becker, DVM, writes every other month for Veterinary Practice News. He is a Sandpoint, Idaho, practitioner and founder of the Fear Free initiative. For more information about Fear Free or to register for certification, go to fearfreepets.com. Columnists’ opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Veterinary Practice News.

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