Takeaways From the 2016 Veterinary Conference Season

A look at the changes in the veterinary industry.

Veterinarians making the rounds on the conference circuit deserve some relaxation after hours of standing, walking and sitting.

NAVC

If you crunch the numbers on annual veterinary conference attendance, you’re likely to glean one thing above all else: January’s North American Veterinary Conference in Orlando and March’s Western Veterinary Conference in Las Vegas attract the largest share of national conference attendees in an annual locking of horns over market share within the coveted, increasingly competitive and surprisingly lucrative veterinary continuing education marketplace. 

No denying it: There’s no more exciting time of the year for a part-time veterinary journalist. Here’s where I get to hang out with old friends, make new ones, suck in some energizing CE and surrender to some hard-won spa time. (The Delano’s Bathhouse in Las Vegas is my all-time favorite.) What with all the attendant pomp, ceremony and trash talk (overheard, I swear), what’s not to love?

Best of all, however, is the annual opportunity to assess the year’s changes in our veterinary landscape through a panoramic lens. Though we’re rarely treated to shocking revelations or earth-shattering innovations—conference sponsors will claim otherwise—there’s a constant thrum of forward motion behind all the banners, glossies and swag. Even the tricked-out booths will have a thing or two to say about where our industry is headed. (Who’s got the deepest pockets this year?)

Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to break down the buzz. Filtering out the noise always has been the hard part. But, as usual, I’m here to render my unfiltered opinion on the subject. To that end, I’ll offer you seven stray thoughts that careened into my head, collided spectacularly and got regurgitated back up onto the page before you. Here goes.

Growth and Building 

Over the past few seasons, I’ve become increasingly aware of the veterinary design and building subindustry and the role it plays in the conference circuit. Lending institutions finally are hitting their stride in a post- recessionary loosening of purse strings for those who qualify (the going still is rough for start-ups looking for cash). Their presence, along with contractors, architects, equipment purveyors and cabinetry suppliers (to name a few), means someone’s making a lot of money here.

Despite its targeting of the very high end of the veterinary market (specialty practices, chains and larger, multidoctor facilities), this industry’s ability to pack rooms with veterinarians willing to pay a significant premium for the privilege speaks volumes about its reach. It’s a trend worth watching, for sure, not least because it represents the growth of veterinary consolidation and may well drive a further escalation in veterinary prices at the higher end of the market.

The Usual Suspects 

Drs. Andy Roark, Justine Lee and Marty Becker—they’re all starring in this conference season’s speaker schedule, vying for the coveted “best of” spot they keep trading. Which reminds me: Our profession is always in need of more presenters to join the ranks of the nationally recognized in their category. When will you step up and partake? (Which reminds me: Dr. Tony Johnson, won’t you rejoin the exalted lineup, please?)

It might seem trivial to you, but if you pay attention you’ll likely agree that popular speakers offer great cultural insight into any industry. It’s kind of like watching presidential politics, but way less stressful.

CE Lineup 

While I’m at it, I should mention the obvious: The speakers’ topics offer enormous insights. Though practice management always is high on everyone’s list (and a still-swelling source of topics), there are other areas where we’re increasingly willing to dedicate our time. Consider shelter medicine, practical behavior, alternative medicine and hands-on orthopedics such as rehabilitation and do-it-yourself cruciate repair labs. I find these shifts in interest fascinating.

Nifty Handheld Gadgets 

James Bond’s Q would be proud of veterinarians. We can’t help ourselves when it comes to buying cool new gadgets. Anytime we can learn to use a new tool, we’re up for it, and the industry knows it. Just this past year I’ve adopted two tools: a CryoPen for freezing wartlike masses and a device called BlephEx, which has been the most useful tool for managing blepharitis I’ve ever come across (still available only through human channels). And there are plenty more!

Online Marketing 

It should come as no surprise that online marketing firms are coming after veterinarians in droves—and aggressively! These guys will practically leap out of their booths for a chance at showing you where your website is going wrong. Which only makes sense. After all, ours is still a wide-open market. In fact, the way I see it, about 80 percent of our practices’ websites are in need of serious assistance.

I know mine was until I redid it a year ago. And, even after a complete overhaul, it’s still a work in progress. Tweak, retweak and tweak again on the weekends. A website is a living organism that should reflect your practice philosophy in real time. You should start treating it as such. OK, off my soapbox now. But it’s not just about website design. It’s also about search result rankings, your overall visibility in the online marketplace (i.e., review sites) and managing your reputation (you can soften the blow of negative reviews). Stay tuned for more on this in an upcoming column.

The App Wars 

It seems everyone’s got a new app for something you might need. For your lab results, for your practice’s communication needs (The Vet App), for medical records management (VitusVet), for your patients’ wearable health trackers (PetPace), even for all your conference needs. What’s more, now there’s competition within all these veterinary microniches. Go see for yourself. And while you’re at it, add an app or two to your roster.

Health Tracking 

I was a late adopter of the FitBit. (I just got one, and I’m already a devotee.) Ironically, I’ve been a proponent of health trackers for pets since these first entered the marketplace a few years ago as wearable GPS devices. These tools may seem a tad faddish, but they’ve absolutely got more power than we give them credit for. Monitoring a patient’s activity level alone is enough to make a tracker worth the money. The trouble is, this is a tool veterinarians can’t monetize easily, which makes it a tough sell at a conference, unless its power can be harnessed. Hmmm.

Final Musings 

A few other categories are showing some early signs of new life (practice management software may one day be worth its price tag), some are making their usual progress (pet insurance, pharmaceuticals, parasiticides and nutrition), and still others are taking their last gasps (online informatics is taking a beating), but overall, one thing is clear this conference season: Ours is a healthy, vibrant, growing marketplace. Doomsayers begone!

At least in its role as a retail service provider, veterinary medicine ranks among the United States’ most successful industries. And I, for one, am grateful. Now, if only I could eke out some more spa time throughout the rest of the year.


Dr. Khuly owns a small animal practice in Miami and is a passionate blogger at www.drpattykhuly.com. Columnists’ opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Veterinary Practice News. 

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