Intentional decision-making, deep-rooted commitment, and a strong set of guiding principles are required to expand a successful practice
Growing my practice has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. It’s given me the opportunity to serve the pets and people in my community at a world-class level while also creating an amazing life for my family. However, just like my other passion, competitive downhill mountain biking, growing a veterinary practice has had steep drops, tight turns, and rocks in the road that take skill and discipline to navigate safely.
As you get started, it’s vital to define your mission and identity. Who are you as a practice? What is your mission, and what are your values? This clarity is fundamental in attracting and retaining the right team to help you grow.
Never let anyone else decide what you can achieve or how you should do it. When I was in school, a guidance counselor told me that I would never be able to make it into veterinary school. Everyone seems to have an opinion about your practice and career—and there’s a lot of bad advice—so be sure to make your own decisions based on your personal mission and values.
I moved from St Louis, Missouri, where I grew up, to California as soon as I finished veterinary school. I wanted to experience another part of the United States and make it on my own. Doing things on your own requires you to dig deep because your success is all on you at the beginning. And when you have a ”fire in your belly,” people will follow your lead and join you.
Your personal values and behaviors are a massive influence on your practice. Strive to be your best self—and help others achieve the same—and maintain a growth mindset to push yourself to learn more and do better. When you promote a culture of personal responsibility and growth within your practice, your team will continuously improve. This is essential because it makes them less reliant on you personally, so you can work “on” your business instead of just “in” it.
Be sure to also invest in your team and celebrate your practice’s milestones. You should also monitor your financial benchmarks and employee retention rates, which are key indicators of success.
Balancing the demands of practice ownership with your personal life is challenging, but not impossible. I raised 2 sons while also building my practice. In many ways, I believe this helped me be a better practice owner. I had nonnegotiable times for my family, such as cooking a hot breakfast every morning and dinner every night, despite the demands of my growing practice. These commitments required me to develop discipline, optimize my efficiency, and delegate effectively—all of which made my practice better.
I’ve developed a system I refer to as the Veterinary Practice Operating System (VPOS), which includes specific processes I use to run my hospital. One example is using structured team meetings to maintain alignment. From time to time, we need to change our approach to a treatment based on new research. When this happens, I use my VPOS processes to ensure everyone working within my practice understands the change and the part they each play in it. This facilitates seamless operations and makes clients feel confident in our practice.
Every veterinary practice was greatly tested by the COVID-19 pandemic.
I was grateful to find that in our practice the discipline and teamwork we had built made this difficult situation much more tolerable. With changing mandates from the CDC, state and local governments, and the American Veterinary Medical Association, we were constantly adapting. Many practices in our city shut down or stopped taking new patients because they just couldn’t handle the chaos. On the other hand, at The Drake Center for Veterinary Care, our commitment to serving the pets in our community inspired us to ensure that every pet that needed an appointment got one. This resulted in unprecedented growth: We added 4 doctors and 20 staff during the pandemic, which was great for us financially, but more importantly, it brought the team together through shared commitment to be there for our community.
The importance of good mentorship cannot be overstated. Be selective about whom you choose as mentors, and take advice from those who’ve owned and led a successful practice. One of the best pieces of advice I received early in my career from my mentor, a retired practice owner, was to “run your practice like you might have to sell it in 6 months.” This doesn’t mean you should literally be preparing to sell, but rather, that when you keep your practice financially healthy and running well, you maximize your options in any new situation that may arise.
Technology can be a powerful force for improving care and enhancing service, but I have also seen it used as a Band-Aid for dysfunction. At The Drake Center, we were early adopters of digital X-rays and electronic health records because these enhance our care and improve our client service. However, I also often see new technologies such as telehealth, remote staffing, and pet apps being pushed on veterinary practices as a substitute for good business practices.
Adopt technologies that truly enhance your ability to deliver on your mission; don’t use them to avoid confronting dysfunction or inefficiency. If you tackle those problems directly, your practice will thrive.
Growing a veterinary practice requires an alignment of personal values, effective mentorship, disciplined work-life balance, a systematic approach, and an optimal utilization of technology in service of your mission. Implement these strategies, along with a healthy dose of optimism and persistence, and you’ll be well on your way.
Much like downhill racing, it takes constant attention, adaptation, self-confidence, and resilience to grow a practice. In the end, your reward will be a practice that you can be proud of, a team you trust, and a community you serve with unparalleled care and dedication.
Michele Drake, DVM, CVA, is the owner of The Drake Center for Veterinary Care in Encinitas, California, a 10-doctor, 55-employee hospital that consistently outperforms competitors and industry averages because of Drake’s passion for embracing change and new technologies. She has served on committees and advisory boards for the University of California, American Animal Hospital Association, Novartis, and more. Drake completed her DVM at the University of Missouri and founded The Drake Center in 1992. She also serves as the chief veterinary officer for GeniusVets. Drake can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.