Poor little pandemic pups. They’ve caught so much flak for our longer hours, the breakneck pace, and the higher intensity work life we’ve muddled through over the past year and a half. That is what we have read in the news and repeated whenever clients complain about waiting twice as long to either secure an appointment or stew in the parking lot awaiting their coveted time slot.
Not as it seems
As it turns out, though, the pervasive narrative blaming all those sweet, needy babies for our hectic veterinary pandemic schedules—it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. On closer inspection, it is not about the bare shelves in our shelters, the international imports, or even the breeders who are still cashing in on the crazy high demand for purebred progeny. Nope. It all comes down to our own plummeting productivity instead.
Sure, we have all seen a nice bump in new client visits. But it doesn’t completely capture why wait times, already twice as long in 2020 than 2019, given curbside COVID protocols, are even higher in 2021. There has got to be more to the story. And there is.
1) For starters, an increase in first-time clients is not always about a new or used pup, is it? Some of these newbies are those who have lost their regular vet. Think of the smaller clinics that called it quits in the early days of the pandemic, the startups that cut their losses, or those on the cusp of retirement who cashed in, triggering practice-shopping defections. All of the above translates into more business for the rest of us.
2) Then there is the issue of pent-up demand. For all the home-bound clients who watched their pets more closely and sought services more proactively, many more didn’t make it past our doors at all during the pre-vax first waves; until recently, that is, when the world seemed it might be back to normal before we knew it. Now this submerged bulk of the iceberg is finally surfacing, adding unexpected appointments owing both to revived travel plans and a generalized reawakening to the notion pets shouldn’t wait to receive care.
3) Probing even deeper, it turns out the pandemic shelter pup phenomenon has been somewhat overblown, overall. By some accounts, a cyclical shortage in U.S. shelter inventory incidentally coincided with the pandemic, misleading us into thinking heightened demand was responsible when supply was already nearing a natural lull.
But back to my premise: The larger story has less to do with a simplistic accounting of new puppies and empty shelters. What is really fueling our collective schedule crunch is something over which we have more control than we give it credit for: our diminished productivity.
Productivity, put simply, is how many units of work we accomplish given a fixed set of resources. Higher productivity means we do more work with these assets (capital, people, time, and inventory, for example) and lower productivity means we perform less with the same.
In the case of veterinary medicine, the pandemic has greatly reduced our ability to take care of as many animals, to the same degree we once did, with the same resources we once deemed sufficient. We have either had to use more resources, perform less veterinary medicine, or both.
So when my team cheekily asks why I am still driving that 10-year-old car given we’re obviously so “successful,” I tell them this: “It may look like we’re making money hand over fist, but the unseen realities are:
A) While we may be super-busy, it is not generating as much revenue as our former “super-busy” times once did. Our productivity and profitability have plummeted. In other words, we are working a lot harder and possibly seeing more cash, but we’re getting less bang for our buck.
B) Isn’t it obvious we are spending way more than we’re used to? Haven’t you noticed more people work here than before the pandemic started? How many more boxes accumulate in the delivery area every day? How almost everything takes longer to accomplish?
C) Guys, I could not get a new car even if I needed one. The decline in productivity is not just a vet thing. The whole world is feeling it, including the market for cars.
If A) and B) sound familiar, then you’re the lucky ones who have been able to find more staff members to help serve the same number of clients (plus a few new ones) and enough cash reserves to make it happen. If not, then you are probably working even harder than I am. This means you are probably pulling your hair out by now and, like me, C) isn’t even on your radar.
Overall, here is what’s happening:
1) Convoluted COVID protocols killed us. Continually changing operations to meet each new pandemic-related requirement made us slower. I mean, how many times did we shift gears in 2020? How long did it take us to adapt each time? Even after all this time, most of us are still markedly slower than pre-COVID. That is just the nature of social distancing protocols. It is like we’re running in place, repeating ourselves endlessly, and taking three times longer to perform the simplest of tasks.
2) New technology costs money. Adopting new tech on the fly was draining and, in retrospect, a disappointingly impotent and unreasonably expensive time suck. We like to think technology’ has been a lifesaver, but I’m pretty sure it didn’t buy many of us much time or bring in more revenue than it cost to install and implement. I do not know about you, but when I think of all the hours spent shopping and enacting virtual visit paradigms, I’m pretty sure I didn’t get my money’s worth.
3) Keeping our teams healthy and happy has been a Sisyphean ordeal throughout COVID. As if the virus alone wasn’t enough to disrupt our team’s integrity and morale (quarantine, illness), we’re all overworked and emotionally drained, which leads to more sick days and an increasingly overburdened core team. Add this to everyone else’s fraying nerves and the epidemic of clients who cycle through entitlement/impatience/belligerence (and repeat), then it’s no wonder team turnover is high in the veterinary profession.
Don’t blame the puppies
Yeah, it’s not the pandemic puppies making your life crazy. Not even close.
So the next time your friends and acquaintances ask why veterinary facilities seem so busy or why wait times are so long these days, try not to rely on the simplest answer. Tell them, “It’s not the puppies. It’s the multifactorial loss of productivity birthed by a once-in-a-lifetime brew of viral biology, cultural intransigence, and existential dread.” See if it works for them.
Patty Khuly, VMD, MBA, owns a small animal practice in Miami and is a passionate blogger at drpattykhuly.com. Columnists’ opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Veterinary Practice News.