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Present and future practice

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WHAT will companion animal practice in the UK look like in 10 years' time? The question is certainly pertinent, given all the changes of the past 10 years, whether in practice itself or in the industries that help to support it, as well as in the expectations of pet owners. It was also the subject of a one-day meeting hosted by the pharmaceutical company Zoetis last week, at which about 20 figures from across the industry were invited to assess the forces currently affecting the companion animal sector and try to determine what the future might hold. The event involved people from a variety of backgrounds – including independent, corporate and specialist referral practices, animal medicines and pet food manufacturers, veterinary distributors and pet retailers, and financial services providers and insurers – so inevitably provided a range of perspectives and views. Despite this, and despite the uncertainties that always accompany attempts to predict the future, some common themes emerged.

There is no doubt that companion animal practice has changed substantially over the past 10 years, which have seen, for example, significant growth in the corporate sector as well as in the number of out-of-hours and specialist referral centres. The past decade has also seen consolidation in the veterinary pharmaceutical industry, new entrants to the insurance market and, significantly, an explosive increase in the amount of information and range of services available via the internet which, by expanding the choice available to consumers, is changing the way businesses must operate. Increased consumer power, in part driven by developments on the internet, was considered by those taking part in the meeting to be a significant force shaping practice, leading at least one of the practitioners present to conclude that the nature of practice in 10 years' time would be determined not by vets, but by pet owners.

Corporate practice, it was felt, would continue to expand, but not inexorably. There would still be room for independent practices, but these would have to be run efficiently, and compete effectively, to survive. There was, it was suggested, a potential problem here, in that most people became vets not because they were interested in business, but because they wanted to look after animals. At the same time, however, they needed to run their businesses efficiently and make enough profit to be able to do this. While the compassionate kind of service provided by vets was appreciated by clients, and contributed to client loyalty, convenience was becoming increasingly important to consumers, and clients were more inclined to shop around. In many respects, a veterinary business was no different from any other business and, it was suggested, there should be more emphasis on business skills training in the undergraduate course.

There seemed little doubt that growth in the corporate sector and the evolution of veterinary buying groups had led to increased competition in the companion animal health sector; as one practitioner put it, ‘I've never had to work so hard as since a corporate opened round the corner’. At the same time, the sector still had a long way to go before it became anything like as competitive and segmented as, say, the automotive repair industry. Some of the pet superstores were increasingly pursuing a strategy of providing a wide range of services under one roof, and there was a suggestion that a similar ‘one-stop shop’ approach might also be appropriate for small independent practices. However, others argued that practices should focus on clinical services and doing what they were good at, based on the local situation and what clients wanted and could afford.

One area where some of the smaller practices might learn from corporates was in the field of human resources management; people, it was pointed out, were central to any enterprise, and the important thing was to decide on a strategy and then put plans in place to develop the staff to deliver it.

The point was made during the meeting that the number of dog and cat owners in the UK was static or falling, with a suggestion being made that, collectively, the industry should do more to highlight the benefits of pet ownership, and possibly promote more ownership, while also emphasising owners' responsibilities to their pets. Of possibly greater concern is the number of existing pets that currently don't get to benefit from veterinary attention; effort needs to be devoted to finding ways of reaching these animals and, indeed, to obtaining reliable data on pet populations to determine what the extent of the problem might be.

As the past decade has shown, a lot can change in the space of 10 years and it would take a brave person indeed to predict what precisely companion animal practice might look like in 2023. Nevertheless, the meeting provided useful insights into the forces, both internal and external, acting on the profession and the direction in which things are moving. A report of the meeting will be published as a supplement to Veterinary Record and distributed with the journal in January next year; meanwhile, the topic will be discussed further during a follow-up debate at the SPVS/VPMA congress, to be held in Newport from January 30 to February 1. It may not be possible to say exactly what companion animal practice will look like in 10 years' time, but it will certainly be different from now.

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