So what might this all mean for small animal veterinary practice as it heads into the future? And what kind of future does it have?
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WHAT came over loud and clear from the group was, yes, there is a future for the excellent businesses that are out there already and those yet to come, be they corporate or independent. Those that concentrate on offering clients what they want will reap the benefits.
For those who think the rise of corporate veterinary practices will signal the end of independent practices, there was a consensus among the group that this is unlikely to happen. Experience from other sectors with some commonality with the veterinary sector, such as the optical market, suggests that there is likely to be a plateauing out of corporate practices, with a prediction that they might make up around 50 per cent of all practices within 10 years. That is not to underplay the impact still to come from this transformation of the industry. Corporates and charities currently make up around 25 per cent of practices and so we are still talking about a potential 100 per cent increase in the next decade. However, it was genuinely felt, from both the independent and corporate practices in the room and from those who support both sectors, that, innovative, forward-thinking independent practices will flourish and successfully compete.
Offering a number of different services in addition to the more traditional veterinary services was felt to be a good way to help bond clients to the practice, increasing client convenience and making it the ‘one-stop shop’ for the pet owner. Service was another key factor, and the point was made that vets need to realign the costs of services and not subsidise the practice through product sales. Don't be embarrassed about charging for your time, it was suggested, it is where the real value lies.
Those vets who offer great clinical skills and communicate well with their clients are likely to be always in demand. However, running the business as effectively as possible should, it was suggested, be a priority for every veterinary business – even if the only motivator is to allow more investment in those clinical skills. As one person put it, ‘See it as a business and run it like a business.’ The veterinary schools are including more business skills in the curriculum, but it was suggested that it is worth making more use of people who are not vets but who can bring more relevant experience and skills into this side of the practice, something that, arguably, the profession has been slow to embrace.
Recruiting the right people for your needs and then retaining those people once you have them was seen by the group as a vital way of keeping a business vibrant and successful. ‘Be diverse when recruiting,’ it was suggested. ‘Is it really a good idea to recruit four or five vets in your mould? Look at what you really need and where the gaps are and recruit on this basis.’
Much has been written and debated about what effect more women entering the profession will have and how this might change practice. Whatever your view on the matter, women are still more likely to take parental leave and pick up other family commitments than men, and, as it becomes more likely that the vet will be female, it was felt vital that independent practices in particular ‘need to work with women’ to make it a success for all parties. It was also pointed out that, regardless of gender, times are changing, there is more demand for a more realistic work:life balance and, as graduate debt increases, practices may have to think of different models to allow younger vets to have access to ownership and partnership.
The veterinary industry is not just made up of veterinary practices, but those businesses that support and supply them. But they all need compliant pet owners to thrive and in the concluding debate there was a lively discussion about how the industry could pull together to work collaboratively to encourage responsible pet ownership. There are a large number of pets that never get to see a vet or allied professional, but would benefit from doing so and reaching these animals would clearly bring benefits to pets and vets. Also, as evidenced in the introduction to the day, pet ownership in the UK is considerably lower than in the USA and lower than some of our European neighbours. Studies have suggested owning a pet can bring health benefits and a case was made for the industry to work together to promote increased pet ownership and more responsible pet ownership.
Ultimately, if a business offers what the client wants, at a price they are prepared to pay, at a time and place when they want to buy, it will succeed. What became clear during the day was that there was room in the veterinary sector for many different business models, from the ‘cheap and cheerful’ vaccination and neutering clinics to those offering a more specialist service, and that clients might dip in and out of practices depending on what they required.
Whatever strategies practices adopted, it was important to take a business-like approach. This would be essential not only in helping to ensure a vibrant sector but also meeting the most important goal of all: that of improving the health and welfare on the UK's pet population.
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