Change Is Inevitable; Profitability Is Optional

The only constant in life is change; witness the veterinary profession over the past 50 years. Change has involved all facets of practice from species to quality and scope of medications and available treatment modalities.

Dr. Whitford owns three veterinary hospitals and offers laser therapy in multiple-session treatment packages.

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The only constant in life is change; witness the veterinary profession over the past 50 years. Change has involved all facets of practice from species to quality and scope of medications and available treatment modalities.

Reluctance to stay abreast of changes results in an increased chance of becoming obsolete in today’s competitive environment. This is especially true with the relative stagnation generated by an increased number of practices vying for the same limited pet population.

To understand today’s problems, one must look back to the inception of veterinary medicine in the United States. Initially the profession’s minds and hands were not emphasized when price was placed on veterinary services.

Most pets relax during laser therapy.

Often, there was no charge for the diagnosis, only for the treatment. Compounding this problem, there was no charge for the treatment except for the medication. In other words, the profession was saying our time and expertise are worthless but the medication is worth far more than a reasonable markup. In essence, we became a store from the onset.

Back in the early ’90s, we emphasized the sale of products. We marketed the practice as “one stop shopping.”  We told consumers they could save time by purchasing products at the veterinary clinic. At that time, “value” was defined as “convenience,” at least as much as the cost of the product. 

Portable units allow on-site treatment of large animals.

Now times have changed and a down economy has generated more interest in cheapest pricing rather than value-added services that may cost the consumer a little more.

The survival of the today’s small animal veterinary practice depends on the conversion from selling products to selling services. Simply handing the client some stuff is easier than taking the time to educate the pet owner on appropriate needed services.

Selling services results in a higher profit margin than selling products. Services are unique for each practice and cannot be compared as easily as a product that can be bought from other vendors. One must play by the rules of retailing, not the rules of professional service fee setting.

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Major retailers work on very low profit margins and must be excellent managers. Few veterinarians have the interest or expertise to compete on these low profit margins.

Today’s veterinary practice could continue to sell products but must question the impact pricing of products has on the perception of value for veterinary services. Could this be part of the reason for the increasing client perception that veterinarians are overpriced? It certainly is not from our current service fees, which truly are the most value to the pet owner when all medical and dental fields on the human side are compared.

Another major problem is that approximately 70 percent of all veterinary services provided are related to preventive care, which is much easier for the pet owners to “shop.” 

Wellness exams, lab screening, vaccinations, spay/neuters, routine dental cleanings, flea control products and heartworm preventives are perceived to be the same at all veterinary practices. Pricing becomes a major factor any time a service or product is perceived to be the same or have no difference in outcome.

An emerging strategy for practice survival is diversification of services provided, thereby offering a competitive advantage. These services limit competition because of time, expertise or cost of equipment needed. Laser surgery once was limited to no more than one per city due to the above requirements. However over the last 10 years, it has become a competitive disadvantage to not offer this service.

Class IV laser therapy is one of the new modalities stepping up to the front as a service that has tremendous potential to help pets while at the same time help the practice. It is drug free, surgery free and perceived by the public as a professional service now used commonly in human medicine. 

Thousands of published studies demonstrate its clinical effectiveness. Clients love it because they can be participants by being with the pet during the procedure and even wearing laser safety glasses to watch what is going on. Most pets relax during the procedure, silently telling the owner it is not painful.

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Laser therapy works by increasing circulation, drawing nutrients to the area, and reducing swelling, muscle spasms, stiffness and pain. I have seen excellent results on tendinitis, back pain, chronic wounds, MRSA infections, lick granulomas and after ACL repair.

In my practice, marketing has been very simple. I simply state that the pet needs Class IV laser therapy as part of the best treatment veterinary medicine has to offer. It is not optional. Frequently I will be discussing the procedures needed while a pet is in the next room receiving a Class IV laser therapy treatment from our technician. 

On Saturday mornings, we often take clients and pets back to the treatment area to decrease waiting time. We may have as many as four tables in that area occupied by pets and owners being worked up. Frequently a Class IV laser therapy treatment will be going on for other clients to observe from a distance. I call this passive marketing.

Fees may be charged on a per-treatment basis, but I have found it best to offer a package of five treatments with a small discount over the individual treatment cost.

When first introduced, Class IV laser therapy units were perceived as quite expensive. As competition has grown, the cost has decreased so that most practices can afford them. 

The most important thing to remember is that once the unit is purchased (which can be written off in one year under current tax rules), there is no major continuing cost such as reagents needed for lab equipment. In addition, the procedures are performed by your techs, meaning there is no additional labor cost as they are there all day anyway.

Veterinary practices adapting to change and looking to the future will consider adding services such as Class IV laser therapy. 

Dr. Ronald Whitford is based in Clarksville, Tenn., and has been in private practice for 40 years. In addition to daily practice, Dr. Whitford provides on-site practice management consultation evaluations for practices all over the United States.

This Education Series article was underwritten by K-Laser USA of Franklin, Tenn.


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