Veterinarians can take steps to reverse the trend of declining patient visits and revenue, according to the second phase of the Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study. The results were released in July during the American Veterinary Medical Association convention in St. Louis.
Among the findings of the second phase, conducted in May: 51 percent of veterinarians reported a net decrease in patient visits and 42 percent said revenues fell in 2010 compared with 2009.
A key finding of the study, commissioned by Bayer HealthCare’s Animal Health Division and conducted by Brakke Consulting of Dallas with the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues, was the knowledge gap between pet owners and veterinarians in regard to providing for the long-term health of pets.
Some 95 percent of veterinarians believed that pets need at least annual well visits, 72 percent reported that wellness exams are the most important service provided and 65 percent reported that their clientele does not value annual wellness exams.
In addition, 43 percent of veterinarians completely agreed with or somewhat agreed with the statement, “I often worry that pet owners feel I am only recommending wellness examinations to make money.”
The first phase of the study, unveiled in January at the North American Veterinarian Conference in Orlando, identified six causes for the decline in veterinary usage from the pet owner’s perspective: the recession, fragmentation of veterinary services, the use of the Internet instead of office visits, feline resistance to veterinary visits, the perception that regular medical checkups are unnecessary and the cost of care.
“Our initial findings from pet owners established the misperception that regular veterinary checkups were not vital to the ongoing health of their pet,” said Ian Spinks, president and general manager of Bayer Animal Health North America. “What we are now being told by veterinarians is that they believe the development of an annual wellness program for their patients is likely the single most important service that they can provide.”
The second phase, which surveyed 401 companion animal veterinarians, identified potential practice tools and services that could help veterinarians reverse the decline. These opportunities include marketing programs that include an online presence and social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter, developing individualized year-round wellness programs and monthly billing for routine wellness services, and doing more to welcome cats.
Indeed, the study’s authors indicated that cat care represented up to 80 percent of practice growth opportunities, largely in that cats receive much less veterinary care than dogs.
While there are 13 percent more cats than dogs, the number of cat visits are about 30 percent less, according to Karen Felsted, CPA, MS, DVM, CVPM, and CEO of the NCVEI. She said cat owners don’t understand the need for veterinary care as much as dog owners do and that veterinarians frequently underestimate the lifetime value of cats to a practice.
Interestingly, a key obstacle to feline veterinary visits is the travel and arrival at the clinic, which defines the experience of the cat owner, the study found. Only 8 percent of veterinarians reported regularly communicating how to bring the cat to the clinic, despite it being a major concern of cat owners, said John Volk, senior consultant with Brakke Consulting.
Pet owners hope to see the same veterinarian on each visit, the study reported.
“Pet owners want a veterinarian who knows them and knows their pet, someone in whom they can gain confidence,” Volk said. “The way you know if you’re meeting their needs is by asking—through after-service surveys.”
Dr. Felsted emphasized the importance of tracking visits and related metrics. Under the premise that one can’t manage what one doesn’t measure, Felsted said that while 87 percent of practices measured overall revenue at least quarterly, only 60 percent measured new clients, 47 percent measured patient visits, 27 percent measured active clients and 13 percent measured the percentage of appointments filled.
Also, only 20 percent routinely measured client satisfaction. These metrics are instrumental in growing visits from new or existing clients, she said.
Not surprisingly, the study found a correlation between the number of visits and practice revenues: 88 percent of practices that reported an increase in visits over the past two years also reported a rise in revenue.
Client Credit Program Pays Dividends
Veterinary hospitals that routinely offer CareCredit as a financial option for clients experienced a sustained, positive impact to their financial performance, according to another study done by Brakke Consulting.
The analysis, conducted on behalf of CareCredit of Costa Mesa, Calif., detailed a four-year study that compared 100 veterinary hospitals that offered CareCredit to a control group of nearly 400 veterinary hospitals that did not. Veterinary hospitals using CareCredit consistently outperformed the control group of hospitals every year of the study.
The study specifically looked at CareCredit and excluded other third-party payment providers.
“The impact per veterinarian is significant and the increase in medical revenue per full-time equivalent is especially important,” Volk said. “It underscores the value of CareCredit as a payment option when veterinary costs may influence a client’s treatment decision. The impact was also shown to be immediate and was even greater among veterinary practices that were active users of CareCredit services and consistently made program information readily available to their clients.”
Interestingly, nearly one-third (29 percent) of pet owners reported in the Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study that information about financing programs would make them bring their pets to the veterinarian more often. Also, 69 percent of practices in the Bayer study reported a net increase in client requests about alternative payment methods and 43 percent reported a net increase in client interest in pet insurance.
Hospitals using CareCredit earned an average of 19 percent more medical revenue compared to the control group and overall generated 17 percent more total revenue per full-time equivalent, the Brakke study revealed.
Brakke also identified a pattern to the spending: Even though cardholders typically spent more during the first year of CareCredit activation, their spending on veterinary services continued at a higher level than nonusers in subsequent years.
For example, CareCredit cardholders who activated the service in 2007 spent an average of $998 on veterinary services that year, $814 in 2008, $759 in 2009 and $732 in 2010, compared with annual veterinary spending by noncardholders of $443, $465, $491 and $493.
Part of the difference, Volk said, is that CareCredit cardholders tend to own more pets than noncardholders.
Other possible factors: The noncardholder pets might be healthier overall and incur fewer costs, or the noncardholders may have been ineligible for the card and opted not to have certain procedures performed.
“Our cardholders tell us that having a CareCredit payment plan affects the level of treatment they provide for their pets,” said Doug Hammond, senior vice president. “In fact, in a survey of over 600 pet owners, 78 percent indicated that having CareCredit enabled them to focus on their pet’s treatment and not cost.