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Veterinary business management education: why, how, when and who?
  1. Ben Sykes, BSc, BVMS, MS, DipACVIM, DipECEIM, MBA
  1. CPD Unit, School of Veterinary Science, University of Liverpool, Leahurst CH64 7TE
  1. e-mail: B.W.Sykes{at}


As with clinical skills, veterinary business skills cannot be acquired overnight and developing them should be part of the process of lifelong learning, says Ben Sykes

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A RECENT article (Bachynsky and others 2013) and accompanying editorial (Hardy 2013) in Veterinary Record have again brought the role of business education in the veterinary profession to the fore of discussion. Few would argue that business skills are not an essential component of being a veterinarian, yet debate continues as to whether they are an essential skill that new graduates should possess or one that should be gained in the postgraduate setting. In reality, the answer probably lies somewhere in between, with certain skills essential to a minimally qualified new graduate and others more relevant to those in positions of business management within the profession.

A consistent theme in the discussion is that communication skills are an essential skill but, as Hardy (2013) points out, this is not just a skill missing from new graduates, with the findings of Bachynsky and others (2013) suggesting, albeit in a different context, that employers are failing to adequately communicate their position to employees. A fundamental problem exists in the current approach to business management within the veterinary profession, with the short-course, piecemeal approach to business management training that is commonly taken unlikely to produce managers with the comprehensive set of skills required to have a holistic overview of their business and the skills and knowledge to communicate this to the various stakeholders. To make an analogy with clinical continuing professional development, while a short-course weekend workshop may allow a clinician to learn a new surgical technique, the technique itself is of limited use without the accompanying skills of diagnosis or the knowledge required for appropriate follow-up care. Yet we expect veterinarian business managers to develop skills through a piecemeal approach of weekend courses and webinars.

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Business management abounds with buzz words and the next hot thing yet, in many cases, evidence is lacking to support these ideas

Considering the issue from an undergraduate training perspective, the development of veterinary business management skills requires background skills and experience in which to put the learning into context. In undergraduate veterinary education we spend years developing a context in which diagnosis and treatment of disease is subsequently taught in the final years of the curriculum. While it is reasonable to expect new graduate vets to have a fundamental understanding of the core concepts of business management, it is unrealistic to expect them to have comprehensive knowledge of business management because, quite simply, most of them lack the life experience to put the theory into context.

At new graduate level we, as a profession, should reasonably expect new graduate vets to be capable of communicating with clients and to have a fundamental awareness of the key issues of business management. However, requiring knowledge beyond this level at the time of graduation is probably unrealistic and places undue pressure on new graduates and the universities that are expected to train them. In clinical practice, new graduates graduate with a minimal skills set, with the expectation that they will continue to develop these skills. The direction of the modern profession is towards clinicians with narrower, stronger skills sets and there is no reason why business management should not fulfil the same criteria. In this context, the emphasis of veterinary business management shifts back to the employer to have a comprehensive understanding of the subject and to pass these skills onto new graduates in just the same way as good employers mentor new graduates in clinical skills. Unfortunately, at present, the missing link is the widespread attainment of business skills by employers.

Most employers are comfortable and competent in relaying clinical skills, but many currently lack the business management skills to effectively mentor new graduates in this area. The reflex response is that it then becomes the new graduate's responsibility to come complete with these skills but, as argued above, this is unrealistic. In short, it seems logical to shift the emphasis back to employers to develop the necessary business skills to comfortably and competently mentor new graduates not just in clinical practice but in the business of being a veterinarian.

The question then arises as to the most effective means through which employers can develop these skills. As discussed above, it is, at present, commonplace in the management of veterinary businesses to implement strategies and programmes with little understanding of the underlying principles and little awareness of the theoretical evidence that underpins the subject at hand. Instead, veterinary business management is often conducted on the back of tips and tricks learned in weekend bootcamps and short courses. However, a recipe book approach to business management lacks the versatility to approach each business on a case-by-case basis.

Business management abounds with buzz words and the next hot thing yet, in many cases, evidence is lacking to support these ideas. As an example, it is often suggested that we should ‘delight’ our customers, yet the literature suggests that doing so does little to enhance customer loyalty. On the contrary, by delighting customers we raise their expectations and, unless we can continue to ‘raise the bar’ and delight them in subsequent interactions, we risk creating a discord between the customers' expectations and our service delivery. The evidence suggests that, instead of delighting customers, businesses should focus on minimising customer dissatisfaction and managing customer expectations such that the expectations and the product are in line. While not as immediately appealing as delighting customers, this kind of strategy has been shown to significantly improve customer loyalty and is achievable with lower input costs. Herein lies the difference between ‘expert’ and ‘evidence-based’ business management and, as with clinical practice, the focus should be on the application of evidence-based best practice business management instead of the ever-changing world of expert opinion. ‘As with clinical practice, the focus should be on the application of evidence-based best practice business management instead of the ever-changing world of expert opinion

So how do we practise evidence-based veterinary business management? In effect the approach is no different from our clinical training. First, it is important to develop a sound understanding of the broad underlying principles, then to formulate an approach where we can ask specific questions and, finally, to seek good-quality evidence to try to answer those questions. A large volume of good-quality, well-designed studies exist in the business management literature and can be used to answer specific questions with evidence. This process cannot be taught in webinars, weekend courses or within a few weeks crammed into an already crowded undergraduate curriculum. Instead, it becomes an area of postgraduate study in its own right, no different from small animal medicine or equine surgery, wherein we expect new graduates to have a minimal skill set, develop some real world experience and then focus their skills through postgraduate certificates, masters programmes or true specialisation.

Our expectations of new graduates should be fair and reasonable and, given the breadth and depth of the topic of business management, a recognition that acquiring business skills is part of the process of lifelong learning will be important in framing future discussions on the topic.


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