The lure of going mobile is strong for many veterinary practitioners who have had a taste of a traditional brick-and-mortar practice and long for a change. Launching a mobile practice comes with a few drawbacks to consider and plan for, but mobile veterinarians say it also has a long list of benefits.
Andrew Dibbern, DVM, is an equine practitioner at The Equine Center in San Luis Obispo County, Calif., where he works in-clinic occasionally, but spends about 60 percent of his time in mobile practice, which he appreciates.
“San Luis Obispo County is amazingly beautiful, and it is great to be able to see the sights,” he said. He also said that he loves experiencing the environments and atmospheres in which his patients live.
“Farm calls make for closer relationships with patients, and [help me] develop a better clinical picture of the problems I try to help.”
Small-animal practitioner Ben Brown, DVM, owns The Travel Vet mobile veterinary clinic in Davis County, Utah. He spent 10 years in traditional practice and made the leap to mobile eight months ago when he purchased a 26-foot fully equipped Ford E450 chassis by LaBoit Specialty Vehicles.
“It was time for a lifestyle change for me, and I got tired of seeing patients stressed beyond belief in a clinic situation.”
Colleen Currigan, DVM, of Chicago was a mobile practitioner in busy downtown Chicago before founding the Cat Hospital of Chicago in 1998. Dr. Currigan said that by far the No. 1 reason to go mobile is that it significantly reduces stress for patients. Animals, of course, don’t like to be examined anywhere, she said, but the option to avoid a trip to the veterinary clinic is a plus.
Dr. Brown said his clients share stories with him daily about the positive difference between a pet’s stress level in his mobile clinic and in a traditional clinic.
“My canine and feline patients are significantly more animated and display more of their normal behaviors than in traditional clinics,” he said. “This allows a more intimate evaluation of my patients, exploring all aspect of life.”
Dr. Dibbern added that the benefits for his clients are important to note, too.
Mobile Clinic Must-haves
But even with all the state-of the art equipment out there, said Andrew Dibbern, DVM, of The Equine Center in San Luis Obispo County, Calif., who staffs the center’s mobile unit, “The only way I can maximize patient care is by having a better perception of what is affecting the relationship between the [animal] and owner.
“It is very important to listen to owners and gain a precise understanding of what they want and their expectations. If I can positively affect the life experience that the patient and the owner have together, that is true success on any level.”
“Especially in an economic environment where farms have minimized cost, many clients do not possess the ability to transport a horse to a hospital for routine care,” he said.
Practitioners note that mobile services also can expand clientele and help a stationary practice branch out.
One way The Travel Vet’s business has benefited is by providing access to veterinary care for clients and patients who have physical limitations and transportation problems.
“We pride ourselves on providing a unique service to retirement communities and assisted care centers,” Brown said. “We also work actively with the local Guide Dogs for the Blind chapter.”
Both Currigan and Brown noted that having a good working relationship with brick-and-mortars in the surrounding area makes for healthy businesses all around and can lead to unique partnerships.
“It is nice to be able to work hand-in-hand with traditional clinics in our area, providing a non-traditional service to complement the veterinary care of some of their patients that may have difficulty making it to a clinic," Brown said. "We also offer transportation for patients needing oxygen therapy or other in-transit care.”
The freedom of a mobile practice sounds appealing, but practitioners warn there are a few negatives to consider. Some of those drawbacks depend on the geographic location.
In Chicago, said Currigan, “It’s traffic, traffic and more traffic,” as well as the logistics of getting in and out of high-rise buildings. She drove a Dodge minivan and transported her medical and diagnostic equipment in and out of clients’ homes. These issues limited the number of patients Currigan could see in a day.
“We were only able to schedule four to six appointments a day,” she said. “I felt like I spent a good bulk of my day driving and looking for a place to park.”
But even in the countryside, travel time can be very expensive.
“It is technically impossible to set farm call fees to cover your vehicle expenses and time,” said equine practioner Dibbern, who drives a three-quarter-ton truck equipped with a mobile veterinary unit. “A farm facility does not often have adequate equipment, such as a set of stocks, to make a procedure optimal. As much as we try to carry enough medications and equipment, there is only so much storage on the trucks.”
Although Brown’s mobile clinic is full-service, he experiences efficiency problems with appointments. “The time lost between appointments and in the set-up and take-down process are costly,” Dibbern said. “To offset some of these costs, our clinic offers discounts for groups scheduling appointments at the same time at the same location.”
Currigan found the inability to delegate certain tasks inefficient at times.
“[I] spent a good deal of my time driving, doing blood and urine draws, taking blood pressures, giving fluids—basically a lot of things that my technicians do in the hospital setting so that I can move on to the next patient.”
Brown and Currigan also mentioned their frequent disappointment in the inability to offer certain services, specifically emergency services, said Brown, but that’s where partnerships with traditional practices come in handy.
“Unfortunately, our clinic can’t always realistically offer emergency care,” he said. “If we can’t get to a patient in need in a timely manner, we advise the client of the best emergency clinic options and give directions.”
“Do it! If you have the clientele and the reputation to make the leap, and the ability to get to people who will trust you in their homes, it’s absolutely worthwhile.”At the end of the day, however, Brown said he has one piece of advice for veterinarians toying with the idea of going mobile.
For owners of traditional practices, Brown strongly recommends adding mobile services for clients who have trouble leaving their homes or patients who have difficulties getting in and out of vehicles or experience significant levels of stress.
“But you’d have to have at least one full-time veterinarian working in the clinic and an associate who could take a couple days a week to do house calls,” he said.
Currigan said that after all these years out of mobile practice, she is considering adding house calls to her clinic’s services.
“I believe that as a practitioner, experiencing the environment and atmosphere the patients live in gives me information that adds to the quality of the preventive medicine or treatment plan I can offer,” Dibbern noted.