Pandemic practices worth holding onto

What will the clinic look like now that COVID regulations are starting to relax?

What will the clinic look like now that COVID regulations are starting to relax? The answer depends on geography, local politics, and individual policies but this is a perfect opportunity to reassess what works better in this new era. PHOTO COURTESY ANDRESR / E+ / GETTY IMAGES
What will the clinic look like now that COVID regulations are starting to relax? The answer depends on geography, local politics, and individual policies but this is a perfect opportunity to reassess what works better in this new era.

Now that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as issued recommendations relaxing mask-wearing—well ahead of what most of us might have predicted—we’ll likely see a return to pre-COVID operations sooner rather than later. Of course, it will all depend on your geography, regional politics, and where all your stakeholders sit vis á vis vaccinations—not to mention you and your team’s personal risk profile. But it’s a-coming: The end is nigh! The pandemic will end. For real.

Our collective veterinary COVID chapter may be coming to a close, but that doesn’t mean we will be throwing out everything we have learned and starting anew with a long backward loop that pretends 2020 never happened. Nope; not happening. There’s quite a bit to mine here. And you really don’t need to dig that deep.

What we’ve learned

“Ugh… 2020… what a waste!” Such was the pervasive POV as we headed into 2021. Yet, what we have learned during COVID could fill textbooks on veterinary practice management. Our collective ingenuity in managing operations, information technology, marketing, and communications has made clear we are way more capable than anyone might have predicted.

The pandemic has served as both a mirror and magnifying glass. In many ways, it was also a wake-up call for those of us on autopilot. To survive, we would need to take an honest look at ourselves. Scrutinizing our books, our policies, and our practices was time-consuming and often demoralizing. As was revising our practices, changing our operations, and devising concessions to the gap in veterinarian-client communication brought about by curbside medicine.

To that end, here’s a short list of “COVID Keepers,” practices that were so beneficial and so useful that they should stay forever woven into the fabric of our daily lives:

1) Training a keener eye on our numbers inspires confidence

I hate doing it. I’m one of those people who, left to her own devices, could probably go for months without looking at her bank statements. I am so backward I actually pay people to do these things for me. (At least I know my weaknesses, right?) The pandemic, however, required we all get intimate with our finances. That is, if we wanted any money from the Feds. And to survive, which we all did.

Stripping every line item down to its skivvies is never any fun. Nor is negotiating. But it was productive and eye opening, allowing us to carefully compromise with respect to buying ourselves more time, accessing lower prices, seeking the so-called “free” money (PPP loans) and even securing fee waivers (like when our landlord agreed to let us out of three months of rent payments—just because we asked, as a colleague had suggested we do).

Where else have we been missing out over the years? After getting closer with our finances again, plenty of us report we have been transformed. No more will we let deals get past us just because we refuse to soil our hands with all that dirty cash … or prefer to play ostrich … or avoid tricky negotiations … or otherwise avoid any uncomfortable confrontations, financial, or otherwise.

2) New ways to communicate

When you can’t see someone you can’t gauge their level of awareness, engagement, or ability to follow through on your recommendations. In person, however, the reality is we are probably no more capable of discerning how much of our thoughts our clients retain. Hence, why it’s been great to come across new ways to get our news and info across.

Whether you have started texting clients about their normal test results and appointment times, pioneered a monthly newsletter, started social media campaigns, or adopted a system whereby you email “report cards” (as I did) with every visit, these new inroads offer tremendous value to your business, and represent your greater ability to access and influence your clients with greater immediacy.

I, for one, don’t know how I ever lived without report cards. How else will my clients remember everything I have said? After all, my clients are not furiously taking notes. If I’m demanding compliance, it’s only fair I do at least that much for them. Plus, it differentiates my records and cements the sense of quality care despite the separation and contactless nature of our practices.

3) Social media-based vet team/collegial collaboration

Social media served as a conduit for the immediate dissemination of ideas. We powered through the stress in the company of others … online, mostly. If your social media life was mapped onto a sketch pad in tiny, circular Venn diagrams representing the size and scope of your interests, the pandemic probably added some ink to the picture.

After the pandemic, most of you now see larger, more numerous, increasingly overlapping circles. We’re human; contact was inevitable. Collegiality, however, was not. And yet, we saw plenty of new vet-team-only circles pop up on subjects as diverse as applying for PPP loans, adapting Fear Free to pandemic protocols, optimizing operations and throughput, and parking space signage.

Sure, some of it was a bit geeky, but I know you all like to get a little geek on from time to time, right? Now you get to do it with some new colleagues. It’s this kind of positive interaction that makes our profession smarter, stronger, and more fun to belong to. Yay for pandemics!

4) Telemedicine practices

It’s official. In Florida, telemedical veterinary medicine is no longer just a pandemic special. It’s now become the permanent law of this land. For better and for worse, all those hours of remote conversation we logged with clients—along with all the technology we learned to use to make it happen—won’t go to waste. Nor will it anywhere, regardless of your state’s take on telemedicine. These skills are easily transferable to standard practice settings and we should be grateful we got the [stressful] opportunity to incorporate them into our daily lives.

We’ve been lucky to have happened upon so many positive outcomes while trying to make do during the pandemic. Some of it was luck, to be sure, but much of it was the result of inspired ingenuity, adaptive humility, or relentless persistence. We weren’t going down without a fight.

There is one thing, though, I would gratefully discard on the trash heap of pandemic history and that is curbside protocols.

I’m no fan of curbside medicine. Hate it. It’s easier (in a lot of ways) and takes a lot of pressure off our teams (in other ways), but client communication always suffers (a great deal). From what I’m reading in the veterinary press—much of it hoping curbside remains the norm—it seems like face-to-face conversation gets short shrift from many veterinary teams. Plenty are altogether too ready to see curbside persist. Ugh! Drop-offs in a pinch? Sure. But curbside is inherently substandard and pet medicine is inherently personal, so we should force ourselves to do without as soon as possible.

Ultimately, what we learned during COVID is primarily that we are smart, creative, flexible, and driven. We are definitely more capable than we would have previously given ourselves credit for. Even better, we got there, in large part, as a community. Yay for us!

Patty Khuly, VMD, MBA, owns a small animal practice in Miami and is a passionate blogger at Columnists’ opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Veterinary Practice News.

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