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HOW will clients’ ability to pay for veterinary services change as we approach 2020? At present, although practices do have some debts from unpaid bills, most owners do pay for companion animal veterinary services so, in general terms, there is an ability to pay.
Insurance was considered to be important. Currently, approximately 25 per cent of pet owners had insurance. If more people took out insurance it would help them to pay. It was suggested that vets should look to other retail sectors to see if there were models that would work for them; for example, payment plans might be an option, particularly for expensive treatments. It was also suggested that they needed to be more open and transparent about the costs of services before the client decided on what to do; no one wanted a scenario where clients were oblivious to increasing costs until they were presented with their bill.
As the customer drove the market, the industry also needed to look at the wider circumstances potential clients might find themselves in and what that might mean for pet ownership. For example, if fewer people could afford to buy homes, this could affect pet ownership as there might be restrictions on having pets in a rental property. Might cat and dog ownership decrease? During the recession, rescue centres have filled up, suggesting that people felt less able to afford their pets; would this situation change? Practices should look to where the market was growing. Currently this appeared to be in ‘small furries’; what does this mean for the services that were offered?
It was suggested that smaller practices could struggle to find the budget for expensive equipment, which would in turn affect what they could offer and what the client would pay for. A possible solution might be for practices in the same area to pool resources and share these expensive items between them.
Could the way insurers paid out change and influence what and how pet owners paid for services? For example, might insurers base whether they would pay on evidence-based medicine so that only certain tests and treatments would be paid for? Also, might legislation be brought in that required owners to have at least third-party insurance?
Another way that might change how services were paid for was if private healthcare plans, similar to those currently offered in the human healthcare sector, became available. Some groups wondered whether the veterinary profession might have already missed the opportunity to develop these other services.
There was discussion around who were the best clients to target. Should practices concentrate on the 10 per cent of clients who contributed 90 per cent of practice income, or the 40 per cent of ‘floating’ clients who weren't particularly bonded to one practice and shopped around like other consumers? What about those who didn't go to the vet at all? Would it be of benefit to target these pet owners too?
What other factors might affect whether a client returned to the practice? It was suggested that some clients might be embarrassed to return with their animal if it had a recurring problem and they had, for example, struggled to give it all the medication required. The prices charged might not be the main motivating factor for choosing a practice; a client might choose it because it was convenient or if communication was particularly good. Loyalty schemes could be another way to bond clients and also provide information on them. ‘How much do we know about the clients?’ asked one group member, suggesting that, if practices are to provide services that clients want in locations that suit them then the profession needs to have a better understanding of clients and their habits.
Vets, it was argued, needed to be ‘pet-centric’, and what they provide ‘has to be driven by the owner’.
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