Veterinary medicine needs to embrace new, better ways

Among the biggest challenges facing all of health care is how to best scale care

Pet owners call your practice, make an appointment, drive to your hospital and wait in the lobby. We see them once a year if we’re lucky. By some estimates, half the pets in the U.S. won’t see a veterinarian this year. We then have maybe 20 minutes to address the presenting complaint and hopefully squeeze in a few minutes to educate on immunizations, dental care, parasites, nutrition and behavior. An entire year of care compressed into 20 minutes.

Of course, the client tuned you out shortly after the presenting complaint was addressed. In the client’s defense, how could she possibly absorb all the information required to be the great pet owner she aspires to be in one brief annual visit?

Remarkably, we’ve built a hugely successful profession on this model. A model that calls for one visit, once a year, over a matter of minutes, in one brick-and-mortar facility.

Despite this, veterinary spending was up $2.56 billion, or 14 percent, from 2016 to 2017, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Expenditure Survey. The pets that saw us got great care, pet families enjoyed the unconditional love that comes from living with a fur baby, and pets lived longer, happier lives. Amazing. Big smile. Pat on the back. But remember that buggy whip sales were booming as Mr. Ford quietly tinkered in his garage.

The Clock Is Ticking

For now, and likely over the next few years — less than five in my estimation — the foundation of companion animal veterinary practice will remain anchored to a physical facility. Think bricks. Fast-forward a few years and things will look dramatically different. Think clicks. The next-generation practice will provide consumers with a variety of modalities designed to provide personalized advice and care in pursuit of a pet’s best life.

Among the biggest challenges facing all of health care, both veterinary and human, is how to best scale care. We have an enormous shortage of healthcare providers and skyrocketing demand. Demand for care is up, caregivers are down, something’s got to give.

The old one visit, one doctor, one exam room, once a year model will not hold up for doctors or for patients much longer. Doctors and teams can’t work any harder, but we can work smarter. Technology (clicks) helps answer the question. The future bricks and clicks model holds the key.

I believe that veterinarians and their teams belong at the center of the entire pet experience. From whelping to end of life, from feeding to behavior to medicine to proactive preventive care. Pet owners continue to look to us as the experts in all things pet. Our profession remains one of the most admired; our favorability ratings are through the roof.

All this against a backdrop of multiple forces working to disconnect vets from vet med. Things like 1-800PetMeds, Google, groomers, breeders, pet stores — you know the list. How can we better connect vets and vet med? What can we do going forward to place our profession squarely at the center of the pet experience?

Move Over, Boomers

One of my heroes, President Abraham Lincoln, was quoted as saying, “The best way to predict your future is to create it.” What future are we going to create? The future I see will rely far less on a physical facility and far more on technology. We are moving from bricks to clicks. Consumers are insisting, and we had better listen.

Have you noticed the dominant force in the pet space today? It’s not boomers anymore, it’s millennials (the Pet Gen). Millennials are demanding that care be delivered when, where and how they want it. On-demand access. Good for them — they should insist. Their pets are hugely important to them. Extended practice hours and being open Sundays won’t cut it. Worse yet, longer hours only contribute to more burnout within our profession.

The practice of the future will both meet the demands of pet owners and provide a better work life for doctors and teams. What will it look like? A mobile cloud-based electronic health record (EHR) that captures care at every venue will be the glue that connects it all. Care is coordinated and managed outside the traditional primary brick-and-mortar facility. Records are moving from the exam room to the living room. The pet owner is given choices. Bricks, clicks, mobile, voice, call centers all result in the veterinary team touching the pet family multiple times a year. Client education skyrockets, compliance increases, pet families are happier, pets live longer and the vet team remains firmly at the center of the pet experience throughout the pet’s life.

Alternatively, we can cede our position as the pet expert and continue to watch as vets and vet med are disconnected.

What do clicks look like? Virtual rechecks, texting, email, voice reminders, online chats, video visits, triage, wearables (potentially the biggest disruptor of all). Clicks also include proactively reaching out through call centers that support great pet care and advice, armed with data collected in the EHR. All this performed by veterinary professionals. Ironically, many of these “click” interactions will result in additional brick interactions. Our virtual findings will necessitate a physical interaction.

The result? Clients get what they want and pets live longer, better lives.

A Different Workday

So, what’s in it for us, the veterinary professional? For one, pets and families benefit. We were, after all, drawn to this line of work to make a difference. Two, the financial well-being of practices that adapt technology is enormous. More pets visiting more often via virtual and physical venues. Third, and perhaps most important given the well-being crisis we face, think about the day in the life of a veterinary professional in a few years. I think it will look something like this:

A 40-hour work week might be made up of 25 hours in the hospital, seeing pets and families in the traditional manner, and 15 hours broken up to fit your schedule — texting, virtual rechecks, chats, virtual exams, pet dashboard reviews, and coordinating all client touches with your veterinary team. All accomplished over a four-day work week, or a few full days and a few part days, or whatever best fits your life needs.

The care providers get to work from home, from soccer practice or from Starbucks. It’s their choice. One more way to combat burnout. The veterinary team, enabled by technology, will make certain that the pets and clients have all the access and information necessary for the pet’s best life.

Dr. Bob Lester is chief medical officer of WellHaven Pet Health and a founding member of Banfield Pet Hospital and the Lincoln Memorial University College of Veterinary Medicine. He serves on the North American Veterinary Community board of directors.

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