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How Integrative Medicine Can Change Your Veterinary Practice

Find out how this field offers new services, increases customer service and patient care, and improves the bottom line.

Can integrative medicine help your veterinary practice?

Liz Oakley

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If you have been in veterinary medicine for more than a minute, you have noticed that there is a growing trend amongst pet owners. They acknowledge pets more like family members, anthropomorphizing them along the way. Words like “parents” and “children” are common descriptors in the relationships between people and their pets.

We have all heard the reports of how many billions of dollars consumers are spending on their pets annually, too. Combine this with the increasingly demanding personality of consumers and it becomes obvious that veterinary hospitals have to increase their service. This includes the patient care, the quality of medicine and the customer service. 

Considering patient care and the quality of medicine, veterinarians need to be thinking about what medical services they bring to the table. I have been in this industry for 18 years. For the last five I have been the practice manager of an integrative practice. This practice was started in 2009 — remember what the economy was like in 2009? Despite starting up in a tumultuous economy, it has grown exponentially, thanks largely to the conscientious pet owners that are no longer willing to accept mediocrity in the care of their “furbaby.” They want to explore all options to guarantee that their pet has every opportunity to be healed, healthy and happy. They want to know what the underlying problem is and all of the options available to cure the problem. Note the words “problem” and “cure.”  They do not want to calm the symptoms just to have the symptoms return once the pills run out or the “allergy shot” wears off.  They want treatment options that go beyond putting chemicals into the body.

What is Integrative Medicine?

Integrative medicine is the art of combining alternative therapies with the traditional western medicine taught in vet school. Some of these alternatives are very modern, western techniques. Others are rooted in eastern medicine. On the modern side, examples include stem cell therapy and cold laser therapy.  On the alternative side is Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM) which includes acupuncture, herbals, and food therapy. Some additional modalities include massage, homeopathy and even chiropractic.

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What is Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine? According to the Chi Institute on Traditional Chinese Medicine:

“Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine, although relatively new to the Western world, is a medical system that has been used in China to treat animals for thousands of years.  It is an adaptation and extension of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) used to treat humans.  Speaking broadly, Chinese Medicine is a complete body of thought and practice grounded in Chinese Daoist philosophy.  Though it can be traced back over two millennia in recorded history, it, like any medical system, continues to evolve today, and current research on acupuncture and herbal medicine is beginning to shed light on its mechanism of action.”

Dr. Kellie Horton practices integrative medicine and is a Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist.  She says the needs and expectations of her clients are very different from traditional practice.  Her clients often come as a “last option” for issues such as cancer, neurological conditions or unmanaged pain. 

Consider Food Therapy for Pets

Food therapy is considered an “alternative,” because it refers to the idea of what food used to be when it was pure, unmodified and provided to the body as a whole and natural substance — not that which has been heated, extruded, processed, preserved and put on a shelf.

Veterinary professionals are taught nutrition by the pet food industry. While we are thankful for the incredible research and knowledge that industry has provided us, it is an industry seeking a profit.  Stepping back and learning about nutrition, not as a commodity but as a tool, will completely change the way a veterinarian teaches pet nutrition to pet owners. Feeding fresh, whole nutrients can truly change the life of a pet, rebalancing body systems and attacking myriad symptoms at the core, thereby eliminating the cause. Teaching pet owners to use food as therapy also makes them feel empowered, knowing that they are actually contributing to the healing process.  Pet owners will be appreciative of this empowerment and it will bond them to the practice.

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Also, let us not forget the practice of functional medicine, which reminds us that the body works together as a whole unit. Meaning that the childhood song really is true — the knee bone is ultimately connected to the head bone! As Dr. Horton says, “the body functions as a whole, not as separate entities.”

The Costs of Implementing Integrative Medicine in Your Practice

Resources and training are increasingly available from sources such as The Chi Institute, The American Academy of Veterinary Acupuncture, The American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association and The Institute for Functional Medicine. There is talk of making acupuncture a boarded certification, indicating that the veterinary industry is aware of the growing demand for better options in pet health care.

The practice I manage has experienced significant growth because of the aforementioned increased demand from pet owners.  We find that these people are seeking the same changes in their lives, realizing the success in their own life and in turn demanding it for their pets too.  If these techniques make them feel better, then of course it will make their pets feel better too. And it does. 

When a veterinarian commits to learning all of the modalities and incorporating them into case evaluations and treatment protocols, there are costs incurred.  These costs represent time, money and equipment.  It takes time and money to learn these modalities and certainly time to utilize them in patient care.  Acupuncture training isn’t cheap and cold laser units are downright expensive. 

In our practice, appointments are routinely set at 45 minutes and initial consultations may be set even longer. Part of the integrative approach is being patient and nurturing with the client and the patient, letting them both know through your calm, welcoming demeanor that you care and are dedicated to helping them, regardless of how much time or energy it requires. It takes a lot of time to coach them through the therapies you are offering.  While they have come to you because they want something more, they need to have a sound appreciation for what is being offered, as well as trust in the practice, otherwise they will hesitate. As Dr. Horton says, “it is so important to have a personable environment, free of judgement with open lines of communication.”

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Now, from a practice management position, time is money and the practice must remain lucrative or else it won’t be open to help anyone. But remember: Clients are leaving so thankful for the thorough care and the overall sense of peace and trust that they see the value in visiting your practice.  Your practice can determine the price tag associated with that value and charge appropriately for the extended time and the unique services. Not to brag, but even after a fee increase of some 20%, our appointment book remains booked days in advance. Proof is in the pudding: Pet owners want this level of care and service and are willing to pay for it. They are willing to drive further for it. 

These clients will become ambassadors for your clinic, driving new clients through the doors.  They won’t be able to resist in sharing their joy over the positive experience you gave them — an experience of hope, compassion, comfort and sheer joy in knowing that their beloved furry family member does not have to suffer. They will reward you with referrals. 

Through the whole process, an integrative practice is building relationships. The veterinarian is prepared to serve as a life coach. This bonds the client to the practice and yields a significantly larger financial return for the practice over time. 

At the end of the day, veterinary medicine is increasingly competitive and pet owners are increasingly demanding. Certainly clients represent a plethora of demographics and integrative medicine isn’t for all of them, but the number of those that are willing to dedicate themselves and their dollars to their pet’s ultimate well-being is growing.

Integrative medicine gives the veterinarian and the practice leverage to remain competitive and make sure every patient is as happy and healthy as possible. 

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