How I learned to stop worrying and love the heartworm test


Veterinary Economics and Firstline will be publishing dozens of personal stories, in-the-trenches advice and bright practice management ideas in the coming months-all from the final nominees in the 2015 Veterinary Economics Practice Manager of the Year contest, sponsored by VPI-Nationwide. The final winner will be announced at a special reception CVC Kansas City Aug. 30.

Before the newest associate joined the team at Ventana Animal Hospital, the other two doctors were accustomed to administering all annual vaccines-something practices across the nation do too. That meant clients came in every year to get vaccines that not only have been proven to be three-year vaccines, but were being administered by our competitors (within a five-mile radius) every three years.

With the new doctor joining our team, the vaccine protocol got even more confusing for clients and staff alike. The new doctor administered the vaccines every three years, while the other two doctors wanted to administer it every year. The practice owner was worried that these one-year vaccines were the only reason some of these pets were coming to the practice at all. A three-year vaccine meant three years away from medical care.

I have a plan

My job was to show that the three-year vaccine wouldn't mean a drop in veterinary care and practice revenue. I built a report from our practice software that showed what revenue would be lost by switching to a practice-wide three-year vaccine protocol but also added a new and improved protocol for annual heartworm and Ehrlichia testing, as recommended by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and our own Southern Arizona Veterinary Medical Association.

The report projected a $1,300 drop in monthly revenue, but I demonstrated that we could offset that by slightly increasing specialized surgery prices. Two of our doctors are very experienced in mast cell tumor removals, cruciate surgeries and tooth extractions. I argued that we could capitalize on more opportunities to offer surgeries to clients when they didn't want to spend more at the specialty center for surgical procedures our doctors could perform.

Vaccines down; tests and surgeries up

Staff members weren't necessarily pleased with my plan to change the vaccine protocols. Some of the CVTs didn't believe the practice owner would approve, despite my discussion with the practice owner. It was often frustrating, but I explained to them that the pressures of the industry standards, competitors and clients called for us to change our protocol to maintain our message to clients that we are up-to-date on current medical research and business practices. I encouraged members of the support staff to read up on the AVMA standards, check with Dr. Google and speak to other veterinary practices (at least 10 miles away) about vaccine protocols. They took me up on my offer.

When new clients came in, team members made sure to ask whether their pets were on three-year vaccines. They almost always were. Our team members learned that practices outside of Tucson-ones our snowbird clients would frequent in the summer months- also used three-year vaccination policies.

How I knew annual heartworm testing was a success

I predicted that a boost in medically appropriate annual heartworm testing would offset the drop from other annual vaccines going to three-year duration. I reviewed our quarterly revenue reports comparing this year (when we switched to annual heartworm testing) to last year (when we were focusing on other annual vaccines). I found that vaccinations had fallen, that heartworm testing was up, and that preventative-care appointment revenue was unchanged. The change in vaccination protocol didn't hurt us.

Combining all of this with research data built up team members' confidence and ability to discuss the new policy with clients. They also learned about the need for heartworm testing and preventive medicine and were able to discuss this with clients as an important medical service and preventive measure that could, ultimately, save clients the money of heartworm diagnoses.

After four months, the team and I saw heartworm and Ehrlichia testing revenue up and our number of surgeries up more than 7 percent. Team members also get the added benefit of performing or aiding in more complicated and interesting surgeries and procedures in the practice.

Veronica “Ronnie” Hanley is director of marketing, operations and client services at Ventana Animal Hospital in Tucson, Arizona. Read more about past Practice Manager of the Year nominees and winners as well as new nominees in the next few months at

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