Dr. Marty Becker: Make your practice C-worthy


Notice that silence? It's the calm before the storm-a storm that threatens to turn into a disaster if the Internet keeps stealing your clients. But those dark clouds don't necessarily mean doom. After all, no computer can provide the level of service your practice can offer.

As many of you know, I embarked on a Big Bus Tour recently to talk to pet owners and veterinarians across the country. Before I set sail on the bus, I realized that a concern was nagging at me. In fact, it tugged at me like a dog gnawing a bone. It was the reason I splashed the words "Healthy Pets Visit Vets" across the side of the bus.

It was fear.

I was afraid the profession I loved was in danger of becoming irrelevant. I thought about other professions that have been rendered obsolete by technology, from telegraph operators to local booksellers—even to general practitioners in human medicine. The march of technology has either stolen, or is in the process of stealing, their relevance. People no longer look to them first when they need to send a message, buy a book, or find out what drug they need. Instead they turn to the Internet to do these things.

So during the Big Bus Tour I focused on helping my veterinary colleagues make their practices seaworthy for the rough weather ahead—weather brought on by the storm of Internet technology. I made a list of what supplies we woud need to bring on board. Conveniently, they all begin with "c." Well, all but one:

> compassion

> clarity

> connection

> communication

> competence

> courage to compete

> luminosity (yes, that's an "l." But it's an important "l").

Before I tear into each of these characteristics, let's look at the nature of this latest threat to veterinary medicine. If you've been in practice a few decades, you know this isn't the first storm we've faced. But what we face now is a perfect storm. Internet technology that seems to eat everything in its path has converged with a major recession that's changing what we think of as normal in our economic lives.

Dark clouds brewing

In my opinion, the economic change we're seeing will not be short-lived. This, friends, is the new normal. We can't hide from it any more than the people who sold gas-guzzling SUVs, built homes, ran newspapers, or operated neighborhood drugstores could. We've gone from the Me Decade, which actually lasted about three decades, to the Value Decade, which we can expect to last at least that long. The people who come to us are going to demand value, and we have to deliver value or they won't come. Especially if they can find what they think is value by visiting websites.

This threat is as real as the advertising campaigns that advise clients to "save a trip to the vet." It's as real as the website where subscribers can get veterinary advice for $107 a year and also buy nutritional supplements and ear cleaners. It's as real as the website that promises subscribers live chats 24/7 and asks, "Did you know that in 2010, average dog veterinary visits cost owners $225? Our services start at $12.95."

I don't have to tell you how dangerous this is for pets. You already know how tough it is to diagnose disease in animals that are lying on your exam table with radiographs up on the viewer and a blood sample in the analyzer. I don't have to tell you how dangerous it is for your practice if you're no longer the first place clients go for advice on wellness, diagnosis, and treatment. If we are no longer the touchstone of the relationship between pets and people, what will our role be in the lives of animals?

It's a sobering thought. Even before the recession hit, AVMA data indicated a decline in veterinary visits for dogs and cats. In total, 1 million fewer visits were recorded in 2006 than in 2001. What's more, the new Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study reports that 15 percent of pet owners rely on the Internet more than the veterinarian. Nearly 40 percent look online first if a pet is sick or injured. That's pretty scary.

Becoming C-worthy

All of this may be a downer, but it's not the end of the fight. In fact, it's just the beginning. You have the power to win this battle. "Healthy pets visit vets!" is the battle cry. And you already have the weapons at your disposal. Here they are.

Compassion. This “c” is the most important, and it’s where we are the clear winners. The Internet cannot express compassion the way a live, engaged, genuinely empathetic veterinarian can. When a loved one dies, wouldn’t you trade a thousand Facebook condolences for one good buddy who put his hand on your shoulder and said, “I’ll be there for you—whatever you need. Let me know”? The Internet cannot look a person in the eye and wordlessly tell him it’s OK to love an animal this much.

Communication. We can’t ever overlook this “c.” And we have to start by talking in terms clients understand. Most pet owners don’t know -itis from -osis, -ectomy from -otomy, even benign from malignant. Talk on clients’ level so they can repeat what you’ve said lucidly at home. And don’t forget to stir the emotions before you stir the intellect. Sincere expressions of empathy and genuine concern cannot be digitized on the Internet.

In this fight, we’ve got to provide a kind of communication that touches people where they live. One of the things we can do—something we don’t do enough—is lift some of clients’ worry off them. We’re hardwired to spot what’s wrong, but we need to start looking for what’s right with these pets as well. We have to remind ourselves to say, “You’re doing a great job on this.” Catch clients doing the right things for their pets and watch their faces light up.

Clarity. We have to be clear about who we are, what we believe, and what we want. Too often we lose track of who we are and what we believe because we’re busy hacking through the hectic underbrush of daily practice. But are we hacking in the right direction? To achieve clarity in my own life, I’ve come to start every day with this mantra: “Today let my actions promote the best interests of pets, people, and my profession.” This goal is as clear to me as glacial melt.

Connection. All my efforts are meaningless if I don’t connect with every client one on one. People and pets don’t “pass through” our practice; they are our practice. This means we have to connect—in a way the Internet cannot—with every client every time. We have to treat each pet owner as if he or she is the only person we’ll see today. Before we open that exam room door, we have to fix this idea in our minds. Multitasking has become a way of life. But it cannot be our way of life. When we use our hands, eyes, nose, and ears to conduct a tip-of-the-nose to tip-of-the-tail exam, we have to be fully present. As we explain every detail, our highly trained senses can do their healing magic.

Competence. To win the battle against the Internet, we also have to communicate the incredible understanding we have of animals’ bodies, from the specifics to the abstract. We have to educate. We must be the very best source of information for our clients—better than anything they can find through Google. Competence is something we take for granted, but it can’t be faked. It comes from years working in the trenches and from learning on the bleeding edge of veterinary CE.

Courage to compete. This is the most urgent “c” on this list. We can’t sit back and hang our heads and expect to thrive. It’s time to claim our territory: the health and well-being of people and pets. It’s time to advocate for animals, for people, and for the bond between them. Advocacy means standing up for something. Maybe you can be accused of being late for an appointment, missing a diagnosis, or even charging too much, but the one thing you cannot be accused of is failing to look out for the pet’s best interests. What products and services would you recommend if they were all free? What you recommend for a fee should be no different. Only the owner can decrease the level of care. Not you.

Luminosity. Finally, to compete we've got to dedicate ourselves to creating a feeling of joy in our practices. Not everything important can be counted. Not everything important shows up in average client transaction number. To compete on joy, we have to dedicate ourselves to the art of making tails wag and cats purr. Trust me, it is an art. And this art will tether clients to us in a way no website ever could.

Just like a photographer or a painter, we create a joy that is luminous to behold. It comes about when we remember what drew us to veterinary medicine in the first place. I got into veterinary medicine for one reason: I love animals. That means I also love the people who are their companions. I love what animals can do for a family, for a life, and for a community. I love the way animals connect us to something beyond ourselves. That's where I get my energy.

The victory in this fight against impersonal technology comes from the joy in your eyes. It's in your fingertips, your hands, your voice. When you meet a client's eyes, examine a patient, touch the shoulder of a person dealing with grief, or exude confidence and compassion during an examination, you win. The Internet loses and the new normal doesn't matter so much.

When you re-engage with the passion that brought you into this proud 250-year-old profession in the first place, when you feel the thrill again that you felt the first time you healed a dog or a cat or another animal, when yet again you catch a problem in its earliest phase or pull a pet out of the clutches of death to not just survive but thrive, you win. And we all win.

The answers we're all seeking at this crossroad in the history of our profession aren't under our noses. These answers are under our skin. When we win, humankind wins. This battle is for nothing less.

Dr. Marty Becker is a Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board member, writer, speaker, and resident veterinarian for Good Morning America. John Lofflin is a freelance writer in Kansas City, Mo.

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