Competition looms, but so do opportunities


Dr. John Albers readies his departure from AAHA, but still believes in his profession.

DENVER — If he could predict the future, it would be one framed around increasing competition.

An eye to the future: Ending a 23-year tenure at AAHA, Dr. John Albers gets his dream of spearheanding a consumer-directed campaign to air in January on Animal Planet and its Puppy Bowl, which is counter-programming to the Super Bowl.

And the threat isn't from your colleague down the street; it's from outside forces pushing at the doors of veterinary practice — from Internet pharmacies to physical therapists to acupuncturists.

With some 23 years at the helm of the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) and absorbing thousands of veterinary meetings, Dr. John Albers knows this market and the forces challenging it.

Next month he transitions from leading a national association to one of consultant. He spoke recently with DVM Newsmagazine about the future of practice and the challenges facing veterinarians as they rebound from the worst economy since the Great Depression.

"Money follows opportunity," Albers says. And businesses follow money.

Consider this: Every pet that visits a veterinarian needs more than one product, from heartworm preventive to pet food. In fact, one quarter of every dollar in a veterinary practice is spent on a product. It's driving interest in the market from capitalists outside it. On the medical side, other professionals are looking to expand, too, and the plan might include services to companion animals.

"We are increasingly faced with other forms of competition, whether that is from physical therapists, acupuncturists or chiro-practors wanting to provide services to companion animals. Whether it is Internet pharmacies that see an opportunity to profit from people taking care of their pets. I think we have dealt with them very well in the past, and I'm optimistic we will respond appropriately in the future. We don't have it to ourselves as they say."

While Albers is optimistic, there is little debate that the profession and delivery of services is changing. Look at the growing size of practices, the relative stability of practices during a drab economy and the growth in the numbers of specialists.

More than 40 percent of recent veterinary graduates are believed to be pursuing board certification. Just a couple of years ago, AAHA estimated that there were 2,300 to 2,500 specialists in private practice. The most recent numbers suggest that 1,200 to 1,500 are in the pipeline.

"It's an enormous increase. And then you begin to think, with that kind of expansion, is there going to be a saturation point? What is going to be the impact and reaction from primary care and general practice?"

On the flip side, specialty practices are believed to have been hit the worst by the recession. "We don't have a lot of good data on this, but we have good anecdotal evidence that specialty practices were the ones most impacted by the economy." The slowdown impacted general practices, which in turn siphoned off referrals.

"I would like to think that practitioners will refer cases beyond their capabilities, but in the last couple of years, many general practices were referring more cases — not because they couldn't handle them, but because they were really busy."

So, what will happen?

"It's a matter of supply and demand," Albers adds. "My guess is there will be some leveling out of the numbers. The schools have been concerned they are losing specialists to private practice; we might see specialists begin to return to the teaching hospitals."

If you think the model looks familiar, just look to human health care. Is this veterinary medicine's future?

"Clearly we read a lot about the shortage of family practitioners in human medicine. I assume that is a scenario that more and more work will be done by clinical specialists. It would be terrible if we had three or four specialists working on a patient and no one understands the big picture."

And while the interest is clearly on developing greater medical expertise, there is this ever-present necessity to remain economically viable, Albers adds.

"I firmly believe that you can't deliver the highest quality of care if you are not economically successful. Being well-managed is going to be increasingly important, especially if there is more competition in other areas."

While these predictions might seem sobering, Albers is the first to tell you how much he loves his profession. His message is to challenge his colleagues to succeed as professionals.

He always wanted to spearhead a consumer campaign about the benefits of veterinary medicine. Now, after 23 years, his dream will become reality. After the successful sale of MarketLink last year, AAHA is taking veterinary medicine's message to Animal Planet in January. The goal is create an advertising campaign to help drive veterinary care. Albers thinks they have done it. Stay tuned.

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