Is it a Dog-Eat-Dog World in the Veterinary Field?

When competition yields conflict, it isn’t a good thing.


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Somebody once asserted that competition is for dogs and horses — a list that, in my experience, seems incomplete without one more category of competitor: vet students.

As veterinary students we were cutthroat little nerds, were we not? We vied for seats in our class, for top marks, for scholarships, for summer jobs, for externships and internships, for top billing at graduation, sometimes for residencies, and, ultimately, for the best professional opportunities.

Twenty years later, I’m grateful to have put that soul-sucking slog behind me. As if waking up every four hours to temp spoiled racehorses wasn’t bad enough, some of us found ourselves morally reduced to hoping our classmates were working at similar levels of sleep deprivation so we’d all look like zombies at rounds.

While a case could and should be made for the utility of competition in such scholastic scenarios (OK, so maybe not that one), it’s only true to a degree. While an effective if crude means of motivation — spawning innovation and spurring laggards into action — competition has a dark side, too.

Anyone who’s attended a veterinary program should intuitively understand the limits of competition.

Once its apex of ideal efficacy is summited, competition serves only to bring you truly awful test-taking dreams that will haunt your sleep well into your 40s — among other unnecessary evils. 

Sure, veterinary students should feel a certain pull of collegial competitiveness — enough to make them work to 90-plus percent of their physical potential, perhaps? — but not if it comes at the expense of their psychological well-being undermines a sense of camaraderie with their classmates or adversely alters their perception of their future profession.

That is, in a perfect world.

Clearly this is not a perfect world. Nor is it a perfect profession.

Indeed, I’ll posit that the kind of constructive competition that leads to ingenuity in animal health care has long since been culturally superseded (suppressed?) by a brand more concerned with ego, entitlement and earnings.

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Perhaps I’m overly pessimistic, but it seems that only rarely are we treated to positive examples of competition in our profession.

Whereas technical innovation, academic ingenuity, clinical creativity, entrepreneurial inventiveness and singular diagnostic acuity were once celebrated as the fruit of competition, such concepts seem now to be viewed with skepticism and mistrust long before they’re ballyhooed and embraced.

Emerging business models exemplified by the likes of ShotVet and SpaySpot, which are altering the role of the veterinarian when it comes to offering very specific services outside the umbrella of traditional practice, are perhaps the most obvious villains in the veterinary universe.

So, too, do we often feel especially threatened by online upstarts and their “not-veterinary-advice-just-better-information” approach to our profession.

Then there’s the corporate cadre to contend with: These are the Banfields, the VCAs, the Zoetises and other entities looking to get even bigger in their never-ending quest for infinite economies of scale and sky-high vertical integration. The very thought of such monsters under our beds has a way of raising both hackles and bile, never mind that most of us do business with them every day.

Interestingly, this fear of economic encroachment and ideological distrust persists despite a wider culture that lionizes self-interest and personal happiness above all else. But perhaps it’s precisely because we elevate the individual to such stratospheric extremes that we’re unable to foster an earthbound atmosphere of collegial competitiveness. It’s worth a thought. But this column is not about our reptilian reaction to rogue business models and barbarians at the gate.

Nor is it about lofty philosophical touchstones or hard-wired political leanings that might influence our ideological aversion to those we might perceive not just as competitors but as interlopers, pretenders or parasites.

Rather, it’s more about the cultural underpinnings of our profession.

Some of it clearly has to do with the fact that veterinary medicine has grown large and diverse in a very short period of time. It’s also undergone a significant shift, economically and culturally, from a profession whose roots are firmly embedded in the bedrock of rural life to one that’s increasingly metropolitan in outlook and cash flow.

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As such, the veterinary profession has become both culturally unwieldy and prone to fits of extreme divisiveness. Reference the acrimonious debates surrounding veterinary school accreditation for a quick primer on poisonous intraprofessional conflicts.

It’s patently impossible to make all the stakeholders of a variegated community happy under any circumstances, much less when the power structure is in such flux.

Even so, cultural diversity isn’t solely to blame for the kind of systemic “mistrust” described by AVMA’s then-president, Dr. Ted Cohn, in an April JAVMA interview. In it, he contends that among the most serious threats to our profession are our “resistance to change, lack of openness, pessimism and mistrust of each other.”

Though he cites no examples, this statement almost certainly extends way beyond any particular disputes and transcends even our cultural divides. In fact, I’d bet he’s talking more about the kind of competition that hits way closer to home and has way more to do with mundane veterinary pocketbook issues than with anything else.

If so, I’d readily agree. Because while we may fret over big issues, home is where competition hits hardest.

Whether you’re infuriated by the vaccine clinic next door, the shelter that treats your heartworm cases, the specialist who “kindly” does your dentals for you, the Banfield that won’t fax records or the ER that cuts into your patients’ “emergency” ear hematomas, it’s the conflict between colleagues at a local level that takes greatest its toll on our collective psyche.

Yet even these microissues have a way of stemming from bigger ones. It’s not just the cultural divide that’s to blame, it’s the fact that rapid economic change yields uncertainty. And we’ve had a lot of it lately.

After all, when I graduated there were no specialty or corporate practices in my area, lots of our income came from drugs, and there was little competition if it wasn’t the clinic way down the road.

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Not that it was necessarily better that way, mind you. Still, there’s a lot to be said about predictability for those of us who tend to worry about simple things like financial security — a fact that makes my final words that much more likely to prove unpopular.

Here’s the way I see it: Competition is, generally speaking, a good thing. Conflict, however, is not.

The kind of competition that yields conflict is way less productive of entrepreneurship and innovation than cooperation. Though this kind of collegiality might mean sacrificing some of what you believe you’ve earned as a result of your individual efforts, it pays dividends in the form of better patient care and greater respect from the community, if nothing else.

It’s not all snow cones and bunny rabbits and I have no easy answers, just a few pithy insights. But then, that’s why they call it practice, right?

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