Micro and macro events have been brewing up the perfect storm for the veterinary industry. From the global vet shortage; the COVID-19 pandemic; the mental health crises; commercial clinical pressures; the huge pet boom and client demand, suffice to say, it might be hard to have a “glass-half-full” perspective right now. To look at the future for veterinary clinics, we need to review and look at the current challenges and solutions.
Almost every expert Covetrus has interviewed, has pointed to the biggest challenge on the shortage and the well-being of teams and staff members. Increased demand for services has provided job security but has paradoxically caused strain. With the exponential increase in pet ownership, which is evolving potentially faster than the profession is, it’s not yet equipped to deal with such huge levels of demand.
In an April 2021 study of Covetrus partner practices, 89 percent reported that recruiting talent is a challenge for their clinic, with 60 percent citing retention as a challenge as well. A significant majority (94 percent) also struggle with finding enough time to get things done.1
Where some have argued that it’s not so much that it’s not that there are not enough graduates even, but potentially the demands and expectations of the job, and particularly right now, are pushing many out of the industry early.
In an article on ABC news, James Cook University’s Academic Head of Veterinary Science, Dr Margaret Riley said
Compassion fatigue is playing a role now, I think with people leaving the profession, you see these things day in, day out and it takes its toll on you.2
Additionally, with evidence from surveys of veterinarians also suggesting veterinarians have a higher risk of suicide across the globe, compared with the general population,3 it’s representative of the mental health crisis. Clinics need to find a way of balancing the needs of the team to ensure they have a supportive, sustainable and satisfying environment in which to work. And not just satisfying, but empowering and increasing the staying power of veterinary employees, encouraging longevity, productivity and more.
Mark Ethell, Director at Independent Vets of Australia, said
With the increase in pet numbers, there is a heightened need for everyone in the veterinary industry, but particularly veterinary practice teams, to do everything possible to ensure maximum rates of healthcare compliance. Achieving this requires a multifaceted approach involving our people, technology and industry partnerships.
Our people must receive the best education on the “why” and on what excellence in compliance looks like. We must train the entire team because regardless of their role in the practice, each person plays their part from adhering to high standards of care in the treatment room or to communicating effectively at the front desk. Technology allows us to achieve better and quicker diagnoses, communicate with clients more efficiently and more effectively and facilitate the smooth running of practice operations. While all the above can seem overwhelming, it’s important to remember we are not alone.4
When people are leaving work emotionally drained and work is especially taxing for most in the industry, it’s encouraging to see leaders, institutions, charities and bodies step up in an effort to address this crisis. In looking at the glass-half-full approach, there are many options to consider in creating a more nurturing environment and future-proofing your clinic to cater for current challenges but also to stay ahead and enhance all operations.
Evaluate the clinical ecosystem
The first step is to evaluate the clinic’s ecosystem. Is there gap/s you can better manage to enhance the clinical environment for staff and clients alike? For example in reviewing your staff acquisition, retention and satisfaction processes, this is a chance for your leadership team to take a good, long hard look at the clinic’s HR protocols.
This talks to the need for a supportive and nurturing infrastructure at the clinic. If staff feel unsupported, motivation levels are lower, stress is higher and staff retention isn’t at the level it needs to be.
Kay Ritchie, a veterinary recruiter at Noble Futures says
We find that staff find it difficult to communicate to their peers or bosses. It is becoming a vicious circle. There’s lots of options that can facilitate a better working environment. It’s not going to be a one-size-fits all. There are multiple solutions that has worked really well for clinics, for example some practices have been looking at what they can do to retain their staff, such as enrolling them in mental health programs and that can make a huge difference. Technology is also huge, because it can take the pressure off staff, such as telemedicine. It can make life a little easier and strain off the in-house team. We even need to cater for proving things such as ‘grievance support and packages’ to support those who have lost a colleague in clinic due to the unfortunate situation with veterinary suicides. 5
From an interview with Sue Crampton, Business Manager at Crampton Consulting Group, she adds
Taking the time to audit and assess your HR framework and processes annually is an ideal way to future proof your clinic and stay ahead of the changing needs of the employer and employee. Apply to be an “Employer of Choice” via the AVA and seek support from Provet CCG on team and individual career and skill development.
- Invest heavily in their staff’s wellbeing through training on both professional and personal levels.
- Ask questions: leadership teams should have an open forum that encourages staff members to speak up about issues that may be affecting them and cultivating a healthier workplace.
- Have regular appraisals: two-minute appraisals aren’t going to cut it. People inherently want to feel valued and appreciated so you should take the time to show that you care and are dedicated to their wellbeing, development and have honest reviews about where they could improve, but more importantly what they do really well. Giving praise and motivation should be a regular occurrence.
- Go beyond professional courtesy: Use the supportive community and charities dedicated to mental health and emotional support for your teams, such as Love your Pet, Love your Vet. More than ever, veterinary staff need the care, empathy and compassion themselves and friendly shoulders to lean on in times of crisis.
An optimised clinic with improved workflows and automated processes
In reviewing your ecosystem, you could look at how life could be made easier, where you could save time, ease strain and pressure on your staff, as well as how it can help enhance customer experience. For example, telemedicine, thanks to COVID-19 now plays a huge part in day-to-day consults and appointments. It has helped with the triage process, where for example, an email, a picture of the pet wound helps the vet determine if it’s minor or needs to be seen and it helps take some of the slack off a really busy day where extra consults might be squeezed in.
Practice Management Systems’ (PMS) also helps to significantly automate things, from online appointment bookings, inventory control management, pharmacy and online orders to more effective client communications. It might be that technology can help your equipment talk to each other better too.
Chris Wilson, Veterinary Surgeon at The Neighborhood Vets pointed out:
We have quite an intuitive practice management system (PMS) that has integrated diagnostics, so I can quite quickly send an owner an email with the blood results and brief description. If I’m describing that on the phone and chanting numbers, stats etc, that doesn’t sink in with the client. Whereas if they’re given graphics, it makes it easier for them to understand. The PMS makes it much easier to see results instantly where I don’t need to run to the x-ray machine or blood machine when time is short, which makes a huge difference.6
If you’re a paper-based clinic or a small animal practice for example, budgets are usually tighter than a corporate clinic, but you should explore the benefits of what technology can offer and the return on investment it can provide your clinic as opposed to the initial fear and capital cost that it takes. Providers often offer financial flexibility too. The more important thing is that you provide an efficient and effective environment that sees to your staff’s workflow, client experience and how it contributes to overall satisfaction on both fronts.
Managing client communication
Another way to future-proof your clinic is to take care of what makes you money – your clients. As a knock-on effect, happier customers mean less complaints. And less complaints, mean less for your staff to worry about and less stress.
Providing robust, easy-to-use and easy-to-access services makes a world of difference for your clients. And going the extra mile doesn’t mean additional work, in fact, it can be made easier with technology.
Every single thing we do is about communication. Whether it be with a client, colleague, pet, management or a specialist. It is all communication-based. Becoming an effective communicator is the biggest thing, both as a new graduate or experienced clinician. You might not be the best GP in the world, but if you can communicate well with a client and explain a condition to an owner, they will think you are amazing. Do a reach out email. Do a follow up with them in 5 days’ time to check in with their new puppy. Talk them through the x-ray and send them follow up information on that, whether you have templates or get them online. There’s so many good resources. And all it takes, is that little bit extra. Attach that fact sheet as a follow up, and they think you’ve gone above and beyond for them. And that’s what makes the difference.7 – Rory Cowlam, Vet, The Neighborhood Vet.
For things like appointment management, there is a huge opportunity. It can extend care, provide convenience, and lighten staff workload. What kind of impact can a missed appointment have? Covetrus data shows losing a single appointment each day can cost more than $66,000 in revenue a year.8 Even current calendar management systems can be messy and an eye-sore, but with digital tools, at-a-glance, clean and easy-to-use calendars can be a game-changer for managing staff hours and consults. By taking stock of all the areas of improvement opportunities or weak spots, you can significantly change your clinic operations for the better.
The second-largest expense – don’t ignore it
Did you know that inventory management is the second largest expense for veterinary clinics, next to the cost of labour? As an industry, like most in healthcare, it can be an extremely wasteful industry too, with all the consumables, half-used liquids, vaccines and more, going straight to the bin. Every item on your shelf represents cash – and potential waste. The raw cost of items, the cost of storing, spoilage and wastage can be bad for business and hard to manage.
Once again, in reviewing your ecosystem, it’s worth identifying your current processes, whether you have a dedicated stock manager in place or if the responsibility is spread to ease the burden and provide potential learning opportunities. At the end of the day, it is down to the clinic’s way of operating, ethos and how an owner and practice manager wants to run it. To facilitate that process, there are plenty of consultants and providers who can assist, plan, develop, install or execute what is desired. Being able to have a seamless process that detects high-usage and low stock items to replenish automatically can help you run your clinic in a much smoother way. If your finding there’s a lot of half-used items e.g. vaccines or liquid waste, or exponential cost from your stock, it’s unsustainable and worth addressing.
The glass-half-full approach
From supporting new staff, extending care through self-service technology or telehealth capabilities, improving client communication or implementing new tools that the whole team can use, future-proofing your clinic doesn’t have to be all or nothing. It can be addressed one thing at a time, but often technology can address or provide for a whole suite of things you’re looking to improve. Despite all the challenges the industry is facing, adversity always presents opportunities and spotlights.
Dr Brett Hodgkin, Chief Veterinary Officer at Vet Partners says
The disruption of COVID-19 has highlighted some of the challenges we face as a profession but has also shown us how resilient and how important we are to our communities. From the disruption and adaptation, opportunities have emerged, which include the use of communication technologies. Customer services such as telemedicine and video call options, and online service and delivery preferences have grown as a preferred customer channel. Internal communication channels such as Zoom allow us to share important and relevant information for our hospitals in more efficient ways that are considerate of the time constraints for our teams. If we take the time to further develop this technology, our options will continue to be refined.9
The examples provided above from the HR processes, to client communication and stock management are just part of a clinic’s processes and it might be that your clinic needs to look at how to better onboard staff, training, emergency medicine management or online pharmacy options and more. The key is to evaluate, prioritise your values, determine what is most important, what your clinic and brand stand for, what will help it thrive and not just survive. Identify the challenges you want to solve, understand your biggest pain points and use that as a compass to drive you forward into the future. Like a messy house, you can’t clean and tidy it up until you identify the dirt.
 Source: Covetrus, “Covetrus, “Expert Opinion: Largest Challenges and Opportunities for the Veterinary Industry,” 26 July 2021.
 Source: ABC News, “Shortage of vets nationally in ‘demanding and exhausting job’”, 10 May 2021
 Source: AVMA Journals, “Suicide among veterinarians in the United States from 1979 through 2015”, 01 Jan 2019
 Source: Covetrus, “Expert Opinion: Largest Challenges and Opportunities for the Veterinary Industry,” 26 July 2021.
 Source: Covetrus, “Interview with Kay Richie: Addressing the global shortage and cultivating a healthier workplace, October 2021”
 Source: Covetrus, “Interview with Chris the Vet,” September 2021
 Source: Covetrus, “Interview with Rory the Vet,” October 2021
 Source: Covetrus, “How to achieve optimal reminder and recall effectiveness” whitepaper, 2021
[9} Source: Covetrus, “Covetrus, “Expert Opinion: Largest Challenges and Opportunities for the Veterinary Industry,” 26 July 2021.