Improving veterinarians' financial outcomes by looking at behavior

April 10, 2019
dvm360 Staff
Volume 50, Issue 5

What do diet, exercise and health have to do with veterinarians' finances? Quite a lot, it turns out.

The veterinary profession has made great strides in recent years to improve the financial know-how of veterinarians and veterinary students. But despite gains in financial literacy, a stubborn debt problem remains. As with diet and exercise, when it comes to making financial decisions, knowing the right thing to do doesn't always guarantee that veterinarians-or anyone else-will actually do it.

At the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), we're starting to look for ways to enhance financial literacy by nudging people in very practical ways to change their behavior. Leaders from AVMA and across the profession working on this important issue are looking to behavior to help veterinarians and students make financial decisions that align with the best practices taught through financial education.

Tools to explore

Partners for Healthy Pets, led by the AVMA with the American Animal Hospital Association, offers a broad set of toolkits that leverage behavioral techniques to help veterinarians build better client relationships. These include tools for forward-booking, creating feline-friendly practices, implementing payment plans and more. AVMA members can use the AVMA's personal financial planning tool at avma.org/MyBudget. Learn more about the Veterinary Debt Initiative at avma.org/VDI.

Introducing behavioral economics to students

This approach, known as behavioral economics, blends aspects of psychology and economics to garner insights that can help people make different, and ultimately better, choices. For example, we know that people are more likely to make decisions that are easy rather than those that are difficult. So, if we look for ways to make it easier to make wise decisions, we might be able to move more people toward good choices.

Take diet and health, for example. If we want to encourage schoolchildren to eat more nutritious food, we might simply rearrange their options, placing fruit at eye level in cafeterias or moving soda machines to less convenient locations. When it comes to making economic decisions, rather than simply telling veterinarians to stick to a budget, we can work to make budgeting easier and less cumbersome. For example, streamlined tools such as the AVMA's personal financial planning tool bring budgeting online and provide relevant line items specific to veterinarians, such as licensing fees and continuing education costs.

Research tells us that people need to be able to act on new learning quickly, while their knowledge is fresh and they feel empowered to make a change.

Similarly, research tells us that people need to be able to act on new learning quickly, while their knowledge is fresh and they feel empowered to make a change. That's why AVMA has started looking at ways to time financial education to correspond with when veterinary students can put their new knowledge to immediate use.

This approach already is being adopted in some veterinary colleges. The University of Wisconsin-Madison, for example, provides specific financial literacy information that coincides with students' decision period to request student loans. Hyperfocused timing and targeted subject matter avoid content that is too general or not attached to an immediate behavior.

Likewise, Colorado State University offers a “decision-sensitive” financial education curriculum supported by access to a certified financial planner. School officials tell us they see positive results when a financial planner meets with students to discuss best practices and decision making. Even before graduation, students are applying this learning to decisions about budgeting, creating emergency funds, saving, paying down debt, making investments and other financial matters.

How else might timely behavioral economics be brought into veterinary education? Consider these possible examples:

  • Curricula could incorporate more short-term, goal-oriented objectives, such as teaching students who are preparing for internships about how to live on an intern's salary.
  • Rather than simply pointing students to financial resources and tools, financial training could include making sure students are confident they know how to use these resources to help make decisions.

Applying behavioral economics with clients in practice

Behavioral economics can be brought to the veterinary practice setting to help clients make better decisions for their pets. We know from the latest AVMA pet demographics survey that nearly 30% of pets do not see a veterinarian at least once a year. We also know that missed appointments and noncompliance with recommended treatment plans are not only detrimental to the pet's health but also costly to owners.

One way to help clients improve compliance is to forward-book their pet's next appointment before they leave your practice. Whether the next exam needed is a two-week recheck or a wellness checkup a year from now, we can make it easier for the client to do the right thing by prebooking the pet's next exam. Partners for Healthy Pets has a free toolkit your clinic can use to implement forward booking in your practice.

Another example is bundling preventive care into wellness plans that clients can pay for monthly. A payment plan can make it easier for clients to budget, and knowing they're already paying for exams can make them more diligent about scheduling. We remove the decision about whether to make an appointment when we offer an alternative that builds appointment-making behavior into their pet-care routine.

Augmenting-not replacing-financial literacy

Using strategies that consider our clients' emotions and behavior doesn't mean we shouldn't continue educating them about pet health. Similarly, the profession's increased emphasis on behavioral economics in no way diminishes the importance of financial literacy. We optimize financial learning by connecting it with human emotion and psychology. By factoring in the emotional aspects of our relationship with money, we can better help veterinary students and practitioners apply their knowledge of economics to make practical decisions that position them for success.

The AVMA and our partners in the Veterinary Debt Initiative are incorporating behavioral research into our strategies to address the debt issue. As we work to solve ongoing financial challenges in the veterinary profession, we must focus limited resources on interventions that will be effective. Enhancing financial literacy education will help us better direct time, energy and dollars to achieve successful outcomes.

Matthew Salois, PhD, is chief economist and Veterinary Economics Division director at the AVMA. Lisa Greenhill, MPA, EdD, is senior director for institutional research and diversity at the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC).

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