These are difficult times for many small businesses, and veterinary practices are no exception. Prior to the recession, industry reports indicated a declining trend in several metrics, including patient visits, transactions and new clients.
Confirmation of this decline came earlier this year with the release of the Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study. This study compiled industry data, extensively surveyed pet owners and presented it in a format that left little room for interpretation. The study also confirmed that declining veterinary metrics are not a result of a shrinking potential market base.
From 1996-2006 the number of pets owned in the U.S. grew at a steady rate of approximately 10 million per year, but the number of veterinary visits, which had matched or exceeded this rate of growth until 2001, fell flat and began a slow decline. To reverse this trend, our profession needs to evaluate our ability to convert pet owners into active, educated clients.
If there is a bright side, it is that the average per-transaction dollar amount has continued to grow, in most cases as a result of incremental fee increases. Yet even these increases have been unable to make up for the declining volume of patients and patient visits.
While it would be simple if fee increases could solve the current discrepancy, the results of the Bayer Study indicate that in most cases this option has been maxed out.
With 53 percent of pet owner respondents indicating that veterinary costs are higher than expected and 28 percent stating that they would consider changing veterinarians for a lower cost option, continuing with significant fee increases can do more harm than good.
With anything more than inflation-based increases out of the picture, many small animal veterinarians are pursuing new avenues of growth. This includes looking at additions to a practice’s current menu of services and potentially building a service-based niche as a point of differentiation from other practices within the same area.
Physical rehabilitation and integrative medicine, such as acupuncture, herbal medicine and chiropractic, are value-added services that not only present new treatment opportunities among current patients, but offer a valuable opportunity when it comes to attracting new clients. While including either one, or both, of these treatments can elevate a practice’s reputation, it is the existing and increasing consumer demand that is driving the growth of these services that presents a unique opportunity.
Thanks to information on the Internet, both scientific and anecdotal, as well as media that fully recognize the value in catering to pet owners, these treatments are being actively sought out, regardless of the economy. Additionally, providing a service in an existing market demand lessens the risk associated with a return on investment, and potentially reduces the time between an initial service offering and profit realization.
There is also a tremendous and often overlooked opportunity for practices not only offering physical rehabilitation and/or integrative medicine, but making a conscious decision to market them as specialties of a general practice.
Just as specialists obtain clients from veterinary referrals, these niche services offer a similar avenue of revenue stream for general practices. This doesn’t just mean casting a wider net than the typical 5-7 mile radius used as a “mental block” for marketing and practice promotion, although this is important, too.
It requires adding an entirely new element to the marketing mix by pursuing relationships with, and encouraging referrals from, other general and specialty practices. While these patients are technically new, the goal is not to convert them into regular clients; in fact, the opposite mindset is necessary if you want to ensure continued referrals.
Another element of maintaining a healthy referral business includes providing updates to the pet’s primary care provider, which will require a system to ensure that this communication occurs in a timely fashion. When handled with finesse and diplomacy, an entirely self-sufficient practice can actually be built around professional referrals for either or both of these services.
While physical rehabilitation and integrative medicine have the potential to offer growth, quality of care and revenue generation, implementing either program involves a significant commitment of practice resources, of which time and money are the most obvious. Where the aspect of time becomes significant is the period between the decision to move forward with a service and the actual ability to offer that service.
What makes this a significant consideration is that only veterinarians certified in those disciplines can perform them and it can easily take upwards of a year to complete and achieve either a CCRT (certified canine rehabilitation therapist) or CVA (certified veterinary acupuncturist) designation, for example.
While there are several certification programs, each involves the completion of course work, externship hours and a case study, and in most cases have to fit in around a full-time work schedule. (Note: Technicians can also receive the CCRT designation, but check state practice acts to determine whether they can function under a non-certified veterinarian.)
Time and money are always interrelated, and even removing equipment purchases, possible practice renovations and marketing from the equation, the potential educational investment is considerable.
There are two ways for a practice to acquire a CCRT or a CVA: Either provide certification training to a current associate, or recruit and acquire a veterinarian who has already received certification.
While hiring from the outside may sound like a quicker, less costly option, finding a qualified, certified veterinarian in one, or preferably both, of these disciplines can take a lot longer than that. Also, if there is no other need for an additional doctor, offering the opportunity internally is not only more cost-effective but a great loyalty incentive.
In many cases an associate may have already expressed interest and is willing to make a commitment to the practice in return for sponsorship. Recent graduates are often eager for certifications, but often cannot afford to pursue them. They are well aware that competition for positions in small animal medicine is on the rise, and recognize the opportunities these skills can provide.
While there are myriad considerations, if the elements of time and financial investment can be managed and balanced against the long term objective, both physical rehabilitation and integrative medicine are excellent opportunities for growth.
The key is for every step in the implementation process to be well orchestrated to ensure the best return in the shortest time possible.
Choosing to join the growing number of practices that provide these value-added services displays an understanding of the benefits in meeting client demand, capitalizing on complimentary avenues of revenue generation, and ultimately providing the highest standard of care to patients.