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The incredible vanishing veterinary visit


When clients start disappearing from your practice, pets don't get the care they need and the business you work for suffers. Learn the steps you can take to pull more visits out of your proverbial hat and preserve pets' health with your near-magical medical prowess.

Now you see 'em, now you don't. This amazing vanishing act that pet owners are performing at veterinary practices across the country spells bad news for pets. After all, veterinarians can't diagnose or treat animals who aren't brought in.

Now, perhaps veterinary visits are down at your clinic and your boss has asked you to do something about the problem. Or maybe you've tasked yourself to step up and make a difference. And if you're one of the lucky ones, how do you stay ahead of the curve? Let's look at the reasons behind the drop in visits and how you can bring magic back to your practice.

Pet care in crisis

Evidence shows a long-standing decline in veterinary visits. And it doesn't seem to be getting any better. Half of all veterinarians had fewer patient visits in 2010, compared with 2009, according to the Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study, a research initiative conducted by Bayer Animal Health, the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues, and Brakke Consulting.

Cats, in particular, are in serious need of preventive care. Data from Banfield's 800 hospitals in 2011 showed their practices saw two million dogs but only 430,000 cats—despite the fact there are about 20 percent more owned cats than dogs. According to the AVMA, 36 percent of cat-owning households received no veterinary care in 2006. And many suggest, given economic realities, that this number is higher today.

If clients aren't visiting the veterinarian, and the economy continues its sloth-like recovery, what can you do to make a difference? According to the Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study, there are six primary factors that explain the decline in veterinary visits. The environmental factors include the recession, fragmentation of veterinary services, and proliferation of Internet information. The client factors are that clients don't understand the need for services, they suffer from sticker shock, and they resist bringing their cats to the veterinarian. Let's examine each of these factors and explore what you can do.

> The recession. A poor economy and unemployment has affected the number of pet visits. But it's important to remember that the decline in visits began before the recession, so it's not the only cause.

> Fragmentation of veterinary services. Simply put, pet owners have more options for places to go to get Fluffy's food, flea and tick preventives—and even, in some cases, vaccinations.

I admit the first two factors are out of your hands. Unless you're eying Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke's job, there's not much you can do about the economy. You also can't stop fragmentation in veterinary medicine.

The good news is that you can help your practice owner address the four remaining factors. Just remember, there's no magic solution. So some ideas will make sense to implement in your practice, while other ideas may not.

1. Clients look to the Internet for information

Veterinary medicine is a profession that has always been fundamentally based on trust, and there are generally three types of clients:

> Those who never go to the Internet following a veterinary discussion or diagnosis because they simply aren't computer savvy. They don't care enough to bother or they blindly trust anything the veterinarian says.

> Those who really don't trust the veterinarian and may actively look to prove a diagnosis incorrect or seek alternative pricing or an alternative treatment to a veterinarian's recommendations.

> Those who do trust their veterinarian, perhaps implicitly, yet yearn to learn as much as they possibly can about the suggested diagnosis or treatment. Along the way, they may discover and an alternative treatment plan or information that the veterinarian can use. Be honest, even the savviest veterinarian isn't always as up-to-the-minute as the Internet.

There are a myriad of credible websites, so providing an online list with links is a great idea. Direct clients to the sites you like, and feature them periodically in social media and in a newsletter.

Tailor supplementary sites to the client's specific needs, and email those to the client with exact URLs. For a cat with a heart problem, for example, you may offer a page on the latest in cat health studies at the Winn Feline Foundation page.

2. Pet owners don't understand the need

Your and your clients' perceptions and your clients may be entirely different from the types I've described. But data suggests in many practices, most clients don't understand the need to visit the veterinarian for preventive care exams. While I believe this is true, I also believe that when veterinary team members take the time to explain the importance of these exams, most clients see the value in them because they want what's best for their pets.

Team members also play a key role when the client checks out. Ask clients if they have any questions about the bill. By and large, clients have little clue as to the value of an exam, particularly when the doctor doesn't diagnose any disease or illness. Believe it or not, if the veterinarian discovers cancer or heart disease, many clients think, "Well, at least I got my money's worth." Conversely—and nonsensically—when a pet checks out healthy, some clients believe they've wasted their time and money.

This is a place where you can help by influencing the client's understanding of the value you offer. Start by reviewing the bill step by step to help demonstrate medical value and also financial value. Consider the sample script to get started.

Sample script

Taking time to go over the bill also demonstrates that you care what the client thinks. Even when Dr. Smith goes over every detail in the exam room, clients sometimes walk out with their heads spinning. So try to serve as a resource at all stages of the pet's visit. Partners for Healthy Pets also offers free resource toolboxes to help with critical skills, such as improving your communication with clients and implementing preventive care plans in your practice.

3. Clients suffer from sticker shock

You're probably not responsible for pricing, and often you're the one stuck defending the practice's fees. The key is to be informative—not defensive—and explain the reason behind the price. And be sure to indicate value.

Most pet owners realize veterinary practices are for-profit businesses. No one expects high-quality care without a price. And your clients want to feel they're receiving a fair or better-than-fair deal. Everyone loves a bargain. As I mentioned earlier, there's no one-size-fits-all solution for all practices. But here are some ideas you might consider:

> Offer free nail clippings. Seeing no charge on an invoice makes people feel good.

> Provide senior discounts. You can offer these for senior people or senior pets, or both.

> Work with animal shelters to give a substantial price break to adopted pets for their first visit. Sure, you might take a loss during that one visit, but odds are, you'll have a client for the life of that pet.

4. The decline of feline visits

With as much difficulty as practices have getting dogs in for regular visits, the feline decline in visits is more severe. Consider these steps to fight this trend:

> Become an American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) endorsed Cat Friendly Practice. You'll become cat friendlier, which cat owners will appreciate—and so will cats. Having that logo on your website and your front door could make a difference, too.

> Fight common feline assumptions. For example, pet owners might say, "My cat isn't acting sick" or "My indoor cat doesn't need to see a veterinarian." Provide information to dispel myths proactively to clients via email and social media. And link to the handout "Getting your cat to the veterinarian" from the AAFP that offers tips for carrier desensitization and counter-conditioning. The CATalyst Council also offers a great video about carrier transport.

5. The parasiticide dilemma

These factors begin to explain the decline in veterinary care, but there are several others—for example, the profusion of parasiticides now available over the counter. In my opinion, this contributes big time to the decline. My readers, listeners, and viewers tell me that since they're purchasing these products in other places, there's no need to see the veterinarian. What's more, pet owners sometimes make the wrong choices or don't understand how to use the products. Why else would flea infestations be up? Be proactive, and use email and social media to explain why your input might save clients money and help protect their pets' health.

The disappearing act pet owners are performing across the country is more than a veterinary problem—it's a veterinary hospital problem. We're all in this together. So don't sit back and assume nothing can be done. You have a few tricks up your sleeve to make a difference in pets' health.

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.

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