Face time in veterinary practice


The undeniable power of individual relationships with your clients is the motivator to fight back against declining visits.

The old adage that everything old will be new again is an old adage because it's true. In Grandpa's day, veterinarians' livelihood relied on one very simple concept: relationships. As Dr. Michael Paul has told me, "Back in the day, veterinarians made it their business to know about a client's child graduating from high school or to send a sympathy card to another client who lost her mother."

From these relationships, trust and a practice are built.

So what's happened? By now, you know that nationwide veterinary visits have been declining for about a decade. In an effort to solve this problem, the AVMA, the American Animal Hospital Association, industry leaders, and other partners combined their efforts to form the Partners for Pet Health.

Veterinarians like data, and there are tons to support the claim, which AVMA CEO Dr. Ron DeHaven announced at the 2011 AVMA Convention in St. Louis, Mo., when he said "Houston, we have a problem." At this year's convention in San Diego, DeHaven touted new tools Partners for Pet Health offers to be certain that veterinarians and clients are on the same page. Still, overall, the problem persists. Half of all veterinarians had fewer patient visits in 2010 than 2009. Cat visits have plummeted, down 30 percent since 2006.

A minor problem? No—this is a crisis! How can veterinarians care for pets they're not seeing?

The impact of this crisis is undeniable. Back in 2009, I warned in national newspaper columns that not visiting the veterinarian would have severe consequences for pets—and therefore families. After all, for many of us, pets are family.

Today, preventable problems are up. There are lots of examples in the Banfield Hospital State of Pet Health 2011 Report. Here's just one. Internal parasites were up 13 percent in dogs and increased 30 percent in cats compared to 2006.

Not a big deal? Think about it. Not only are more pets unnecessarily getting sick, but some of these parasites are zoonotic. So, there's a public health component. Even flea infestations were up!

According to the first Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study, there are six primary factors that explain the decline in veterinary visits. You've seen them before and you can read about them at dvm360.com/skipthevet, but who couldn't use a refresher?

These half-dozen factors aren't fiction—but many are also pretty complex. These six don't even cover it all, because there's already a big No. 7. In my opinion, the profusion of parasiticides now available over the counter contributes big time to the decline in veterinary visits. My pet-owning readers, listeners, and viewers tell me that they're purchasing these products in other places, so they don't see the need to visit the veterinarian.

I'm one of the journalists writing about pets who publicly states that making a random OTC choice may not be right for pets or their families. When pet owners skip the veterinarian, they miss out on crucial conversations about applying and using the product correctly. Worst of all, the pets may miss a regular wellness visit. I assume I'm preaching to the choir here, but I'm regularly reminding pet owners about the importance of the veterinarian listening to the pet's heart, running blood work, weighing the pet, asking about nutrition and behavior as well as parasite protection, and simply eyeballing the animal. Has the value of the routine exam been communicated to the average pet owner? I don't believe so.

Still, strip away everything, all those reasons why clients don't come into the practice, and I argue it comes back to relationships. It's about you being there for your clients, and them believing in you.

Others are starting to see the relationship light. I recently read in this very magazine about ways to enhance relationships with clients by showing that you're earnest and compassionate. Now I don't think that's the answer. If you need to be told how to show earnestness and compassion, you likely aren't reading this magazine. I don't know a veterinary professional who's in this field for any other reason than sincere love for animals and a deep appreciation for the importance of pets and animals in people's lives.

I suggest that if it doesn't feel honest, if it doesn't feel "right" to you, forget what practice consultants or any other "experts" have suggested.

According to the second Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study, most veterinary professionals believe they have little control over whether the downturn in veterinary visits continues. That's just wrong. Every veterinary professional needs to hear this message loud and clear.

First, marketing and public relations drive business. And while everything old is new again, new technology is an inexpensive and effective means to deliver new business and communicate the importance of veterinary healthcare to existing clients. And most important, when push comes to shove, most pet owners want to do what's best for their "furry children." And pet owners want to know what's best from a source they trust.

Dr. Paul and I talked about relationship building in the real world (as Dr. Paul says, "Folks, this isn't rocket science") and offered lots of marketing ideas, some old school and others new media, at CVC Kansas City. (Miss us? Catch us again at CVC San Diego Dec. 9). And I'll be blogging at dvm360.com/stevedale and elsewhere about additional ways to get clients into the practice where relationships really blossom. But here are some tips for you right now:

> Build word-of-mouth. Once upon a time, this meant a client seeing a neighbor while walking her dog and relaying a story as she holds on to her leash: "My veterinarian saved Fluffy's life after she was hit by a car and called me at home for three straight days to make sure her recovery went well." Or conversely a client might tell her Aunt Dorothy, "I had an emergency, my dog didn't stop throwing up. And my veterinarian wouldn't see me—I couldn't get in. I had to go the pet ER on a Tuesday afternoon. And my veterinarian never followed up to ask me how Fluffy is." Aunt Dorothy might then tell her bridge club and any neighbor with a dog.

Nothing's changed about word-of-mouth. It's still the most effective form of PR. People still relate stories, good and bad, on the street, at parties, at the office, etc. But today it's more than holding a leash on the street—the client holds a mouse, and those stories are conveyed through social media. Aunt Dorothy's bad experience could go much further than her neighbor and her bridge club to hundreds, even thousands, of potential clients in your area.

Practices can encourage social media (and I absolutely recommend it), but there's no point in trying to stop "bad stories" from getting out there. The best answer is to be the best you can be: transparent, honest, and compassionate. You'll then reap benefits from social media without even trying.

> Get involved. I realize people are busy. And making matters far worse, the downturn in veterinary visits comes at a time when the economy is lagging and school loans need to be paid back. Still, I believe that beside the personal benefits of doing good, getting involved is an investment that gives back to your practice.

One idea is to volunteer at a local animal shelter. Whether you donate time to perform spays and neuters at a nonprofit, offer discounted puppy or kitten socialization classes, serve on the Board of Directors, or merely sponsor fundraisers, you'll become a known quantity to adoption counselors and shelter staff members. You could become the default recommended veterinarian.

> Promote an email newsletter. Every practice should have a newsletter, which can be emailed at little or no cost. You can also offer clients the option to receive text messages to remind them when visits are required and when refills are due.

For the sake of the veterinary profession, and most of all for the sake of our pets, veterinarians need to do better in practice—and you can. Remember, it's all about you: your medical attention, your ability to clearly communicate with clients, and sometimes most important, your work to start and build strong bonds and relationships with your clients.

Steve Dale, CABC, writes a twice-weekly syndicated newspaper column for Tribune Media services and is a contributing editor at USA Weekend. He is also host of two nationally syndicated radio shows, "Steve Dale's Pet World" and "The Pet Minute," and is heard on WGN Radio. He regularly blogs beginning this month at dvm360.com/stevedale.

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