The animal health industry is experiencing double-digit growth at a time of high turnover and staffing shortages. How can veterinary practices meet today’s challenges while cultivating a loyal customer base? Dr. Link Welborn, DVM, DABVP, Chief Veterinary Officer for North America at Covetrus® and CEO of Veterinary Study Groups, outlines a path forward in this interview with Nicole Knight, host of the Covetrus Connected Care podcast. A leading voice in animal health, Dr. Welborn was awarded the 2022 American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) Award for his contributions to the advancement of veterinary medicine.
Q: Hi, Dr. Welborn and welcome! Before we jump in, would you mind telling us a bit about your background, your role here at Covetrus, and your current practice?
Dr. Welborn: I’ve been in practice for almost 40 years in the Tampa Bay area, where I have six AAHA-accredited practices employing 35 veterinarians and about 200 staff members. I’m also the Chief Veterinary Officer for North America at Covetrus and CEO of Veterinary Study Groups, the central organization for Veterinary Management Groups (VMG). VMG is a peer-based learning organization, where we organize groups of practice owners that collaborate through sharing their best ideas and helping their peers in other geographic markets address their biggest problems. Over 2,000 practices throughout the United States and Canada participate in 60 VMG groups.
Q: The global animal health industry grew 12 percent in 2021, significantly more than in the preceding decade, with the companion animal sector seeing the biggest gains, according to a 2022 survey. Amid this growth, we know efficiency remains a challenge for clinics, which is compounded by difficulties hiring and retaining workers. What are you hearing from your fellow practitioners about the challenges they’re facing?
Dr. Welborn: The biggest challenges for practices today are workforce, workflow, and wellness with workforce being the greatest pain point in the minds of most practice leaders. A survey of VMG members revealed that two-thirds were attempting to hire veterinarians and three-quarters were trying to hire technicians. In addition, many practices are seeing a slight moderating in demand for services that may be related to macroeconomic factors.
Q: In this context, what steps do you see practices taking? Are there potential pitfalls in one course of action versus another?
Dr. Welborn: Most practices have increased fees to help offset wage inflation as well as other increases in the costs of providing care. This is necessary, but unfortunately it has the potential to decrease affordability and accordingly, access to care. Some practices have also decreased their working hours, with the unintended consequence of limiting access to care. The reduction in availability is often in the evening or on weekends, forcing more pet owners to seek care from after-hours practices, which are typically more expensive, thereby further reducing affordability.
Q: Let’s dig more into the concept of leveraging technology in animal health. Where might technology assist with workflows or workloads or client relationships, for example?
Dr. Welborn: Veterinary practices have always tended to be inefficient in part due to the variety of care provided, but it was less of an issue in the past because relatively inexpensive labor was readily available. Given our current workforce shortages and a demographic drought that is likely to result in insufficient workers for the foreseeable future, practices need to become more efficient.
Recordkeeping is critically important to achieving optimal clinical outcomes. At the same time, it is a huge burden for practices. Anything that can be done to make recordkeeping more efficient allows veterinarians and their team to spend more time doing what they want to do — care for patients and clients. In particular, eliminating duplicate entry in practice information management systems (PIMS) can reduce workload and practice team member frustration.
A great example of this is the ability to send clients text messages directly from many workflow steps such as whiteboard, client record, calendar, tasks, and the patient medical record in Covetrus Pulse™, with the text being written back to the record in Pulse. This eliminates the double duty so common for practices that utilize a separate system to text clients and then must manually transcribe the text into the PIMS.
Another example is the ability to write online prescriptions, including compounded medications and controlled substances directly from the Pulse patient medical record. When the prescription is written in Pulse, an email is sent to the client to complete payment. All prescriptions and shipping information log in real-time into the patient medical record. Additionally, all online prescription approvals and renewals can be done directly from Pulse.
Q: We know that the use of telemedicine increased during the pandemic. As new ways of seeing pet patients become more common, what can be gained and what might be lost?
Dr. Welborn: Even though consumer interest in telemedicine in both human and veterinary healthcare has diminished since the height of the pandemic, teleadvice, teletriage and telemedicine can be utilized to improve client engagement as well as access to and affordability of care. The Coalition for Connected Veterinary Care, a group of over 35 leading veterinary organizations and animal health companies, has some wonderful resources that can be utilized to develop or expand telehealth services in practices. The Coalition also provides information about the responsible use of veterinary telemedicine, including its limitations, regulatory requirements, risks and the importance of the veterinarian-client-patient-relationship (VCPR).
Q: So, if I’m understanding you correctly, it’s a balance of high tech and high touch?
Dr. Welborn: Yes, ideally technology should be high tech and high touch, not only improving efficiency, but also enhancing client service and/or patient care. Wellness plans that are fully integrated, such as the integration of Covetrus Care Plans with Pulse, represent an opportunity to improve quality of care. The potential benefits include greater client compliance with healthcare recommendations, client service associated with affordable monthly payments, and practice efficiency from integrated medical records, automated veterinarian compensation tracking and client billing.
Q: Do you think our industry seems slow to embrace technology or is more work needed to show the tangible value of technology?
Dr. Welborn: Increasingly, practices recognize that they need to work smarter, not harder or simply longer days. However, determining the best technology upgrades can be very challenging with numerous options having similar, but often not identical features. Comparing technologies can be difficult, particularly when the underlying technology is primarily software. Software is not only less tangible than medical equipment, but it also requires practices to have faith that the company can deliver on its value proposition long term.
This is why serious consideration should be given to working with companies with a proven track record of delivering on their promises, and ones with the size and stability to be able to depend on for many years to come. This is especially true for PIMS, which are integral to and interwoven throughout the function of veterinary practices. When upgrading to a new PIMS system, making the right choice can greatly enhance the function of a practice, but making the wrong choice can be devastating.
Q: How can we nurture innovation and creativity among the young veterinarians coming up today and, relatedly, are you seeing new thinking coming out of this wave of graduates?
Dr. Welborn: The young people of today grew up immersed in technology that few could have imagined when I graduated from veterinary school. Accordingly, they are very well suited to help integrate technology into veterinary practices. They just have to be given an opportunity to contribute.
During the onboarding process for my hospitals, we make sure new veterinarians and other team members know that we are always working to identify ways that we can do a better job tomorrow — from both a patient care and client service perspective — than we did yesterday.
We let them know that nothing is cast in stone and that we want to tap into their knowledge and enthusiasm. Although they may be early in their career, every new team member has had different educational and life experiences than every other member of our team. We encourage them to share their thoughts about how we can improve the practice from day one of employment.
This interview has been lightly edited.