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Time to learn business
  1. Jim Gazzard

Abstract

Learning business concepts in a real veterinary context is part of Innovets – a new EMS experience for students at the Royal Veterinary College. Jim Gazzard explains

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MOST vet students are only too familiar with the confines of a lecture theatre. While there has been a big push in the UK to teach veterinary medicine in new and relevant ways, a lot of learning still takes place in hushed, ordered rows, with hundreds of faces staring towards a PowerPoint slide with a distant lecturer throwing out facts and opinions across the darkened void.

There has to be a better way, particularly when you are trying to enthuse students about a topic that is perceived to be outside the core curriculum. A topic like veterinary business, for instance. I know, I have been there … For every veterinary Roddick, Sugar and Zuckerberg entrepreneurial wannabe, there are many quizzical faces, their eyes pleading with you not to take up an hour of their time with some strange business concepts (‘Does anyone know how farm animal vets price their services? Anyone?? Anyone???’).

From left: Nicole Hashash, Andrew Ayers, Cerrie Perrett (with Finn the dog, who is about to have his teeth checked), Jessica Seaburne, Jade Searle, Jim Gazzard and Helen Tyler

Things are changing. At the Royal Veterinary College (RVC), for example, around 15 per cent of the final-year students elect to take a module in business, and the student-led Veterinary Business Management Association (VBMA) enterprise club is going from strength to strength. However, I estimate that for around 70 per cent of students business skills are not high up on the list of competences they want to develop. Yet, one thing I know about veterinary medicine is that every time a vet (including new graduates) grapples with a cat in a basket or injects a pig with an antibiotic, the vet and the owner are participating in a business transaction. Actually, it is quite a complex business transaction. For example, how did the client make the decision to select that particular vet (word of mouth recommendation, marketing on Facebook, or simply the fact that the practice has car parking so the client only has to carry their pet a few metres?). And how did the practice set the price for the procedure (is it a loss leader, is it benchmarked against other practices, or is it a high margin profit generator)? Jim Gazzard is senior lecturer in business, enterprise and innovation at the RVC

Alternative approach

A new approach is needed – a type of veterin-ary business education that reaches the vet students that other educational mechanisms cannot. Hence, at the RVC we have developed a programme called EMS Innovets. Innovets is a week of EMS where a team of clinical phase students work together to consider a real commercial problem.

In the inaugural programme, six students considered how the RVC's first-opinion companion animal practice – the Beaumont Sainsbury Animal Hospital – could develop its veterinary dental service. Our director of clinical services and the practice manager gave the students a week to develop a range of practical approaches that could be implemented to ensure that the clinical team is advising its clients – in an ethical and evidence-based way – about dental health and, where appropriate, recommending dental procedures. All of a sudden, a week doesn't look like a long time!

Based in their team room, the students set about organising themselves. Some collected information on how the practice currently handles dental health (the number of procedures performed, how vets engage with clients around the topic of teeth, pricing, etc), others explored clients' views about everything from tooth brushing to bad breath, and all of them sat in on face-to-face or teleconference meetings with veterinary business experts from across the UK.

At the halfway point, the students presented their emerging ideas to the practice management team and then went full steam ahead with the ideas they liked for their end of week presentation. Throughout the week, the students reflected on their learning and, from time to time, the facilitator (me) threw in some business concepts that might help develop their thinking.

Final presentation

‘Wow! Impressive.’ Those were the words of the director of clinical services, not mine. This was veterinary dentistry approached in terms of clinical excellence, building a practice culture to promote dentistry, with some highly practical approaches for putting dentistry at the forefront of clinicians' minds. Students were leading the way in developing entrepreneurial and innovative new approaches in a clinical setting. The materials the students developed are now in use in the consulting rooms; the practising vets and nurses use the students' framework to drive best practice.

Learning ‘strange business concepts’ is not so hard when the learning takes place in a real veterinary context, and when the practical solutions developed lead to actual healthcare and commercial benefits. Learning about business through the needs of clients, the constraints of a real working practice, the input of experts and (importantly) other vet students is what learning about business should be about. In my view, ethical business competences are a vital part of the new graduate's skill set. If you have these skills they will set you apart from others and help play a role in securing the job of your choice.

We want Innovets to become a programme involving all UK vet schools. If you are interested in taking part let us know – and be part of a process that supports your learning and real veterinary business improvements.

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