By Steve Dale, CABC
I’ll be talking about this topic at various veterinary meetings in 2023. That is a convergence of factors. More pets than ever, with increasingly demanding pet parents, and fewer veterinary professionals to provide care. For years the profession has been begging clients – visit for preventive care. Now the demand for care exceeds supply.
While the number of pets in American has been steadily increasing (about 20 percent rise since 1988), some data suggests as many as 78 percent of pet owners acquired their fur baby in a two-year period, 2020 through 2021. Today, 89 percent of home-owning millennials have at least one pet.
All this while simultaneously pet parents are more concerned about their pets’ emotional well-being and consider their pet their child.
In 2018 a national study of veterinarians reported feeling so overworked that it would have taken over 6,000 additional full-time veterinarians to fully accommodate their net desire to work fewer hours, even if that means decreased compensation. At that time a six percent veterinary shortage.
In 2019, an estimated 116,091 veterinarians were active in the profession: 58.8 percent were employed in companion animal practice. A total of 22,909 additional veterinarians will be needed by 2030.
Add to this the fact that 13 percent of companion animal veterinarians are over 65 years old, another 26 percent between 56 and 65 years, by 2030 many of these will be retired. So another 18,050 more companion animal veterinarians will be needed by 2030 to accommodate anticipated retirements. To meet today’s projected need for pet healthcare in 2030, nearly 41,000 veterinarians must enter companion animal practices (22,909 to fill in for growth in the market plus 18,050 to fill for the retirees). It’s true, there will be 26,000 new graduates by 2030 but that doesn’t fill the void.
Meanwhile, by 2030 the number of dogs and cats in the U.S. is expected to increase substantially.
The profession is offering a myriad of mid-term and long-term solutions, more veterinary and veterinary technician schools and more individuals in all graduating classes; increasing diversity and inclusion long before vet school by reaching out to children in under-served communities; possibly creating a physician’s assistant position in veterinary medicine, and the list goes on. Nothing on this list will help practices today and likely not by 2030.
Here are some ideas which may support practices now:
#1 Virtual Care:
This falls into two buckets. The first are clients with a veterinarian-client-patient relationship (VCPR). Virtual sessions can follow up to pain protocols, rehab medicine or behavior (as well as other examples), using Facetime, Zoom or any agreed upon (and inexpensive) platform to discuss ongoing care/advice. A certified, registered or licensed technician is easily qualified to host and offer client advice (for a fee, of course).
- Clients increasingly prefer this type of communication
- Allowing technicians/nurses to assume leadership makes perfect sense, as professionals well-qualified for this type of follow up, simultaneously freeing time for the veterinarian.
- No more trading phone calls (which take up a great deal of time) and the veterinarian now has more time for office visits or other pursuits.
While this type of virtual care is perfectly legal, surprisingly post-pandemic it is still not in common use.
The second and more controversial bucket is support of third-party vendors offering virtual care from a veterinary professional without a clear up VCPR. Some say “We are not offering medical advice,” but I suggest that’s fudging the truth. But what’s wrong with offering responsible medical advice?
If frustrated clients are unable to see you, the bond could break with the practice. What’s most important, the pet is not receiving care. I personally argue that some care (reiterating from a veterinary professional) is FAR better than no care, or care from “the guy I met in the dog park” or “that lady with 10 cats who says she’s an expert.” Or care from Dr. Google, which might be on target but more likely is not.
It’s a fallacy to believe these virtual vendors drive away vet visits to practices.
Today, veterinary practices typically suggest – “If we can’t get you in for an appointment, go to the ER. Sadly, the ER’s are over-crowded, and not all instances are real emergencies. Or there may not be an ER clinic for 100 miles.
I am a proponent of responsible virtual care and am critical of antiquated veterinary practice acts.
#2 Texting, which is used commonly in other medical fields, and even to confirm everything from restaurant reservations to haircut appointments.
Texting to confirm or cancel appointments saves a ton of time attempting to trade phone calls, and it’s what clients far prefer. Also this diminishes the number of no shows, freeing up other clients (including new clients) to get into the clinic.
Payments can be collected via text reducing time spent paying as well as need for as many collections.
According to a Pulse Survey from Weave, two in five Gen-Zers believe their veterinarian is “outdated.” The survey suggests 34 percent of zillennials want to see similar technology to that used routinely in human medicine, such as digital portals to communicate with doctors and schedule appointments, even to receive quick tips.
#3 Phone Calls
Phone systems, such as Weave, indicate not only who is calling but what that client’s pet’s needs are and also personal info, such as Fido’s birthday. Who doesn’t appreciate personalized service? But this is also about saving time for the clinic.
#4 Encouraging registered, licensed, Certified Technicians to do what they are trained to do:
I’ve written about this issue for the NAVTA Journal several times in far more detail. The bottom line is that no matter what profession you happen to be in, allowing you to do what you are trained to do leads to enhanced job satisfaction. There’s no question that the most underutilized resource in the profession are technicians and nurses. Not only does proper utilization lead to improved job satisfaction, but also time the veterinarian doesn’t need to spend.
There’s little doubt that technicians/nurses are currently the most skilled in the profession regarding client communication.
Nearly one-third of veterinary nurse respondents to NAVC survey stated that they will likely leave the profession within the next five years—and these responses were collected before the COVID-19 pandemic. While pack (or lack thereof) is a significant factor, so is job frustration, and it doesn’t need to be that way.
#5 Text arrival in the car: When arriving, text and wait. Preventing over-crowded waiting areas, and clients potentially witnessing disgruntled clients. Both Fear Free and Cat Friendly celebrate these notions, particularly if a separate entrance is used for cats. The idea is that all companion animals go directly from the car to the exam with the pet parent. No doubt this isn’t so feasible in a Minnesota blizzard or for clients taking public transport to the veterinarian in Manhattan.
These five ideas aren’t going to solve the current state of affairs in veterinary medicine, but certainly they may be beneficial.