Interest in veterinary practice ownership wanes

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Cost and a desire for a positive work-life balance factor into decision to own a veterinary practice-or, increasingly, not to.

Fourth-year University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine student Rebecca Moland wants to be a small animal practitioner—maybe care for the occasional goat or alpaca. Practice ownership isn't part of her 10-year plan. It may never be.

Rebecca Moland

When DVM Newsmagazine asked non-owning veterinarians, "Is practice ownership one of your aspirations?" in its 2012 State of the Profession survey, 70 percent of respondents gave a decided "No." Only 30 percent answered in the affirmative (see Table 1).

Table 1: Practice ownership aspirations

Reasons to opt out of ownership are certainly as varied as the individual veterinarians holding them. But experts agree that a perfect storm of changing demographics, generational differences, new professional opportunities and financial concerns has converged, making waning interest in practice ownership the new normal. "You put the gender shift, advanced degrees and generational thinking together—boy, things have changed," says Ronald Cott, DVM, associate dean for student and alumni affairs at Missouri's College of Veterinary Medicine.

Dr. Ronald Cott

The New Ideals

As the grandfathers of veterinary medicine look to pass the torch, many are finding that the face and ideals of veterinary youth have changed. "We went from 100 percent male in the profession to graduating 80 percent women in every class," Cott says. He says the male-dominated older generation is often finding it difficult to convince younger, mostly female veterinarians of the benefits of practice ownership. "I hear women say they're not interested in ownership," Cott says.

Shawn Finch, DVM, an associate with Gentle Doctor Animal Hospitals in Omaha, Neb., is just one such associate who has no interest in ownership. "I do believe young women tend to think differently than older men about practice ownership," Finch says. In fact, she thinks the role veterinarians used to play in society may not appeal to the younger generation. "Veterinarians of the James Herriot era loved being the go-to guy 24-7, the whole 'jumping into the car to save the day' lifestyle," she says. "The profession has changed since then—slowly, over decades—and today we have part-time jobs, job sharing, specialists and emergency hospitals for overnight care. Veterinarians still have a good quality of life, not so much because of the excitement of years past, but because we balance our life and work and family time and are nicer to ourselves—we're still awesome, but maybe emotionally healthier."

Dr. Shawn Finch

Moland says the challenge of maintaining a work-life balance is definitely a deterrent to owning a practice, but she doesn't think that necessarily relates to her gender. (In fact, DVM's survey shows that male associates are only slightly more interested in practice ownership than women.) "Having children is also not really within my goals for the next 10 years," Moland says. "And if I do have a family someday, I'm hoping it comes with a stay-at-home father."

Ownership is simply not a priority in her career, she says. In fact, she worries it could have a negative impact. "I would consider becoming part owner of a practice in the future if a good opportunity arose and I had the financial ability to do so, but I don't think I'll seek it out," she says. "While it has the potential to increase my salary, it also has the potential to increase my risk for burnout with the added stresses of managing the entire business."

In search of balance

Male or female, it's evident that younger generations make work-life balance a high priority. Participants in the State of the Profession survey stated that a lack of balance in their career and personal life was their greatest professional fear (see Table 2). There seems to be a keen awareness that ownership would put that balance at further risk.

Table 2: What veterinarians fear

Cott admits that the ownership decline may have less to do with gender and more to do with generation. "We (the older generation) were not in two-income families," he says. "One has to have flexibility for family life."

Moland thinks part of the reason may be that she and her peers haven't often seen the process modeled. "We grew up in a generation where businesses were generally not home-grown and built from the ground up," she says. "It's possible that we're simply accustomed to other people taking care of the business as a whole, and many of us are happy to simply be doctors."

Finch says that she, for one, is content to "simply" be a doctor. "I love being a veterinarian and putting all of my professional energy into doing that well," she says. "I personally don't want to own because I love the role I have in veterinary medicine now.

"It's common to think of success in this career as linear," she continues. "If you're an associate, you're pretty successful. If you're an owner, you're more successful. And if you're an owner making lots of money, you're the most successful. I think success is much broader and deeper than that. You can reach your full potential as an associate in the right situation if that's what you were meant to do. I think that's true of me. I'm very happy with my career and where it's headed."

As the profession expands and opportunities extend beyond private general practice, Cott says he sees more students obtaining advanced degrees, which he cites as another factor in decreasing ownership. "Those people who are going to become specialists are not looking into ownership at all," he says. "They're going to go work for a specialty group owned by a corporation or a larger group of people."

In fact, Cott thinks that's what the future will look like. "The new normal will be larger practices with a corporate mindset, more like the MDs have done," he says. "The one- or two-man practice may be fading away." In support of this theory, the State of the Profession study found an increase in the number of corporate-owned practices in participants' neighborhoods since 2009 (see Table 3).

Table 3: Corporate-owned practices on the rise

High costs in a down economy

In the end, the endangered traditional practice may be the victim not only of the ideals of a younger generation but also the profession's precarious financial status. For many, student debt, relatively low income, and the rising cost of providing high-quality veterinary care may be the real barrier to ownership. The fact that the economy is down in addition to these inherent challenges makes starting, maintaining, growing—and eventually selling—a business difficult.

"For newer graduates, I think financial issues could easily be related to the decrease in practice ownership," Moland says. "With heavy student loan debt and comparatively low starting salaries, I would not have the ability to buy into an already established practice for many years, and I can't risk starting a brand new practice, as doing so does not guarantee a paycheck."

And Moland was fortunate—she received scholarships that covered her undergraduate degree. Without that aid, she would have carried more than $200,000 in debt before earning her first paycheck. "If I did plan to become a practice owner, I would not currently be able to afford to buy into a practice without taking out additional loans, which is something I'm unwilling to do with my student loan debt currently standing at $165,000," she says. "I'm gambling enough for the moment."

Cott says it takes about $3 million to open a successful practice today—$1 million for a prime location, $1 million for a prime building and at least $500,000 to get started. "It's not a $40,000 investment," he says. "Today you've got to be state-of-the-art, paperless—there's so much more to running a practice than there was 40 years ago."

Finch believes the key for young veterinarians who are interested in ownership will be mentorship. "Potential buyers will need to see some role models of owning veterinarians who are happy and have a good work-life balance," she says. "I know they're among us, but they'll need to be proactive in mentoring potential buyers."

Despite everything, several of Moland's classmates still hope to own within a few years of graduation. And for others who choose not to own now, Moland says, "that doesn't mean they'll totally avoid owning a practice someday. But they might be interested in it at a later point in their career."

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