36 hands in the pie serve up success


North Central Veterinary Center, a collaboration between a university veterinary school and private practitioners, proves there's strength in numbers--and frees local veterinarians from late-night emergencies

Two heads are better than one. And three-dozen investors are better yet, at least in the case of North Central Veterinary Center in Westville, Ind. The emergency and referral practice, owned by 36 investors and located on the Purdue University campus, is the first university/private sector joint venture to build an emergency-referral practice with funds from the local community. And the affiliation has served the community well—much to the relief of area practitioners tired of taking emergency calls.

Six years ago, Dr. Larry McAfee, owner of McAfee Animal Hospital in Valparaiso, Ind., met with Dr. Alan Rebar, dean of the Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine, to discuss the mental and physical strain on general practitioners who take emergency calls. Dr. McAfee had been in practice 29 years and thought he'd handled his own emergency calls long enough. Dr. Rebar mentioned that Purdue always wanted to find ways to get the school and students involved with private practitioners.

Award-winning floor plan: North Central Veterinary Center

"From the onset we viewed the collaboration as a win-win situation," says Dr. Rebar. "We hoped to develop a unique residency program that would train residents who want to work in private referral practices. We also saw the emergency center as a future rotational site for some of our fourth-year students considering specialty training or a focus on emergency and critical care." That's when the idea of collaborating on a local emergency and specialty practice was born.

Dr. McAfee talked with his partners about the idea and then scoured the community to find other practitioners interested in investing. "I met with local practitioners several times to get the details of the plan ironed out and was surprised when we had 36 investors at the start," he says. "It was great that we could all come together to build this practice. And our affiliation with Purdue University offered many benefits. For example, we could spend more on the design and construction, because we didn't have to spend thousands of dollars on a site."

North Central Veterinary Center features high-quality materials made to withstand constant use, an efficient traffic flow to get emergency patients in easily and accommodate specialists during the day, plenty of room to navigate, and the distinction of being a Merit Award winner in the 2004 Veterinary Economics Hospital Design Competition.

A curved reception desk greets clients just inside an air-locked vestibule. The seating alcoves feature a combination of built-in and moveable seating, and the practice offers another semi-private waiting area directly off the triage room.

36 opinions—but who's counting?

You might think that having 36 people give their opinions on a building project would be impossible to handle—not to mention really annoying. But Dr. Rex Bailey, owner of Michigan City Animal Hospital in Michigan City, Ind., says the more minds the merrier when it comes to building the perfect practice.

"The more people involved in the process, the more obvious our focus became and the more comfortable we felt with our decisions," says Dr. Bailey, an investor who served on the building committee. "For example, we started with the idea of building just an emergency practice. Then someone suggested incorporating specialists who would use the building during the day, when the emergency center was closed. That one suggestion changed the way we built the facility—from the layout to the quality of materials needed to withstand 24-hour-a-day use. And had we not solicited opinions early, we might have missed this opportunity or been forced to make costly changes later."

To make a project of this magnitude work, the five-member oversight committee met biweekly. They created more specific committees to cover such areas as finance, building, staffing, and publicity, and selected chairmen for each committee. Another job for the committee members' was to solicit ideas from investors and keep the ball rolling.

"With so many people involved, it could have been a mess with everyone wanting their own way," says Dr. Bailey. "But in this case, there were no selfish motives. Everyone wanted the best care for the patients, period. That focus eliminated potential issues that could have cropped up otherwise."

Working together to handle emergencies

Collaboration, challenges, and compromise

Because North Central Veterinary Center worked on this project in collaboration with Purdue University, the knot of red tape the owners needed to maneuver was bigger than in most building projects. For example, every design decision needed approval from the Purdue University Board of Trustees, says Dr. McAfee.

"The university asked us to make sure the building would fit into the existing campus architecture, but we wanted our building to look more updated, too," he says. "It required a little extra time and money to get the right look."

Dr. Bailey says another challenge was extrapolating the knowledge of private general practitioners to figure out the needs of an emergency and referral practice. "For example, the exam room sizes differ in an emergency practice, and we needed different types of equipment. We also needed to make the practice safe for personnel working at night. And, because we decided to keep the practice open day and night, we needed room for deliveries to be made in the back, out of clients' sight."

The doctors also enlarged exam rooms to accommodate student observation and incorporated two efficiency apartments for student living quarters. Other design elements special to an emergency and referral practice include direct access to the treatment area from the reception area for critical-care cases, a locking hall door to close off certain areas in the evening for security, and a callback area that looks directly into glass-enclosed ICU and recovery rooms.

Dr. Bailey believes the investors achieved their goal to provide a highly functional practice that meshes well with the university. And they've even left room to expand in the future, a key issue for the investors. "We wanted space to incorporate multiple specialties without overlapping too much, and I think we've hit the right balance for today and down the road," he says.

Dr. Rebar is also happy with the collaboration to date. "While our relationship with local veterinarians has always been strong, we've seen a unique relationship emerge between North Central and the School of Veterinary Medicine," says Dr. Rebar. "We're each committed to the success of the other. These kinds of partnerships can only benefit the profession and the public as a whole."

Sarah A. Moser, a former Veterinary Economics associate editor, is a freelance writer in Olathe, Kan. Please send questions or comments to ve@advanstar.com.

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