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How will COVID-19 transform veterinary practice?

dvm360dvm360 June 2020
Volume 51
Issue 6

Survey results reveal that the pandemic has provided a pivotal push to spark change and propel the veterinary profession forward.

The effects of COVID-19 on the veterinary profession have been sudden and far-reaching. Few practices or team members have been unaffected, and many of the ramifications are likely to be felt for some time to come.

While the pandemic has undoubtedly presented challenges, it also has brought out the profession’s ingenuity and catalyzed changes that can position practices for greater success in the post–COVID-19 economy.

Impact on veterinary practices

In April, the AVMA conducted a large survey of practice owners to better understand the practical impact of COVID-19. We collected over 2,000 responses representing different practice sizes, types and patients, asking questions about client numbers, financial impact, operational changes, supplies and other topics.

The survey results paint a clear picture of how broadly COVID-19 has impacted veterinary medicine. They also highlight the creativity and innovation that have allowed veterinary teams to continue providing essential healthcare to patients while limiting spread of the coronavirus and prioritizing the safety of team members and clients.

Among the key findings from the April survey:

  • Almost every responding veterinary practice (98%) was limiting client contact due to COVID-19.
  • The most common operational change used by practices was curbside care—asking clients to wait in their vehicle during animal exam and treatment.
  • Over 30% of practices were using telemedicine, and close to 20% were seeing only emergency-related cases.
  • Nearly every practice reported a decline in revenue accompanied by a shortfall in the cash/income necessary to accommodate practice operation.

COVID-19’s impact has permeated practices completely, from the bottom line to the implementation of new service models and precautionary measures that safeguard the health of veterinary teams and clients.

How have operations changed?

On the operations side, fully 85% of practices surveyed had implemented curbside care as of April. Other changes included the adoption of contactless payment processing, taking patient histories by phone or virtually, and drive-through pickup and drop-off.

More than half of all practices were allowing client visits only by appointment in April, and nearly two-thirds had delayed at least some surgical procedures. A small number of practices (5%) had implemented staggered or dedicated service hours for senior citizens only.

What do safety precautions look like?

Precautionary measures put in place to protect human health also were diverse. Just over one-third of practices had asked clients to maintain social distance from each other, and 31% had asked team members with symptoms of illness to go home. Some 14% had asked clients displaying symptoms to leave the facility, and almost 13% had asked clients to wash their hands.

More than 25% had asked staff to sanitize and reuse personal protective equipment (PPE), and 20% asked staff to limit PPE use beyond state requirements whenever possible. Over half of practices reported being unable to order PPE at some point during the pandemic, and more than 60% had trouble getting sanitation supplies.

What about the business effects?

There’s no question that veterinary practices have felt the financial effects of COVID-19. As of April, about half of practices surveyed had seen client visits drop by 50% or less.

More than 75% of practices reported that their clients had started buying pet food or medication online, likely in response to COVID-19. Of those, 73% of practices said clients had started buying online directly from the practice, and 23% said clients were using other online retailers (mostly Chewy, PetMed Express and Amazon).

To address these issues, more than 60% of respondents indicated they had applied or would apply for a Small Business Administration (SBA) loan. This was the most common strategy reported to maintain cash flow, and nearly all of those planning to apply for loans said they would use some or all of the money for payroll. About 60% of practice owners indicated they would forgo their own salary, and 60% said they would pull from business cash reserves. About 35% of respondents indicated they would rely on a business line of credit or use a personal asset to in fuse cash into the practice.

In many ways the pandemic has provided a pivotal push to spark transformation and accelerate change in the profession. Veterinary practices in the future will not look the same as they did before COVID19, and some of that change can be beneficial—after all, the need for transformation is ever-present. The one thing we need to keep asking ourselves is, “What more can we do?”

Tools for innovation

The AVMA’s COVID-19 website includes resources to help practices continue innovating. These include telemedicine tools, guidance on bolstering cash flow, and resources to support expansion of services whenever the time is right. On the business and insurance side, AVMA PLIT and AVMA LIFE also have useful resources related to COVID-19; visit avmaplit.com/COVID-19.

Transformation: A silver lining

As AVMA leaders talk with practice owners, frontline veterinarians, technicians and others, one thing is clear: The COVID-19 crisis has forced the veterinary profession to evolve in some positive ways. Practices have implemented telemedicine and other virtual technology in rapid fashion, and they are exploring ways to deliver services in a better and more efficient way.

The speed with which practices rolled out curbside and concierge care, switched patient rechecks to virtual check-ins and implemented new safety protocols has been remarkable. Some of these changes, like curbside care or adjustments in how farm visits are conducted, may wane in the post-pandemic world. But others are likely to stay in place and could help make practices even stronger moving forward. Virtual and convenience-added solutions, such as telemedicine and online ordering, will remain relevant long after the COVID-19 recovery is complete.

Dr. Salois worked in private industry, government and academia before joining the AVMA in 2018 as director of veterinary economics. From 2016 to 2018, he served as director of global scientific affairs and policy at Elanco Animal Health, supervising a team of scientists in veterinary medicine, human medicine, animal welfare, economics and sustainability. Before joining Elanco, Dr. Salois was chief economist with the Florida Department of Citrus, where he led economic and market research activities to drive industry growth and profitability for citrus growers. He previously served as an assistant professor at the University of Reading in the U.K., and also has held positions with the University of Florida and University of Central Florida.

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