Publically revered, professionally taxed


Chicago - Veterinarians are still beloved and clients remain willing to pay high fees despite growing public expectations and prices rising faster than inflation. Yet practitioners, wary of practice ownership, aren't eager to put in a lot of hours, a trend that's straining the U.S. supply of DVMs.

CHICAGO — Veterinarians are still beloved and clients remain willing to pay high fees despite growing public expectations and prices rising faster than inflation. Yet practitioners, wary of practice ownership, aren't eager to put in a lot of hours, a trend that's straining the U.S. supply of DVMs.

Such broad assertions interpret three major studies launched by the American Veterinary Medical Association. Last month, marketing director James Flanigan detailed highlights of the reports during the group's annual leadership conference in Chicago. He divulged what insiders say is new insight into economics that drive the profession as well as how the public and practitioners perceive veterinary medicine.

Conclusions from each study, which include AVMA's biannual economic report and two separate but new public and veterinarian attitudes surveys, are scheduled for release in upcoming issues of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. The reports feature three main components: the state of veterinary economics, attitudes of veterinarians that will drive economic change and how the public perceives veterinarians' value to society.

"When you take these reports and put them together, there's greater insight than from any one individual study," Flanigan says. "There were light bulbs going off. The connections are being made that these issues — economics, veterinary and public satisfaction — work in concert."

Wanted: more income, less hours

Attitude scores and economics might run in tandem, yet as the public continues to hold veterinarians in high regard, practitioners want to practice less, and interest in ownership wanes, Flanigan says. Whether generational attitudes or the profession's increasing female majority are to blame for the shift, AVMA's survey of roughly 1,300 members reveals ownership interests are lower than what is necessary to maintain the nation's average of two doctors per practice. The study, which explores ownership, income satisfaction, work motivation and work-life balance, reveals changes that might appear statistically related to gender.

Flanigan notes while AVMA's active membership becomes female-dominated with this year's graduating class, a "significant percentage" of survey respondents reported dissatisfaction with their work-life balance, and less than 50 percent expressed interest in practice ownership.

Such attitudes could change how clinical practice in America is run and influence veterinary economics as a whole, Flanigan says.

"This suggests that there is likely to be consolidation in the veterinary community," he says. "Assuming the demand from DVMs will be to provide more income with fewer hours worked, the shortage of doctors and the desire for higher salaries all point to higher veterinary costs in the future."

Incomes, fees are rising

That development already appears underway. According to AVMA economic numbers, incomes have risen faster than the rate of inflation in all private practice sectors.

In 1999, the KPMG Mega-Study, co-commissioned by AVMA, estimated the supply and demand of veterinarians and reported veterinary incomes were stagnant compared to inflation.

Using KPMG data as a baseline, Flanigan reports a clear trend that all clinical practices are earning more with preliminary numbers showing that during a decade-span ending in 2005, the mean income for a private clinician increased more than 78 percent.

"That shouldn't be surprising to anyone," he says. "In public practice, incomes have also risen. We don't have an overall number; they're all over the place. But depending on what you're looking at, our numbers show a 37-to 63-percent increase over the same 10-year timeframe."

Public adoration

The long-standing fear that image suffers when prices rise fails to mesh with AVMA survey results, officials say. Despite a recent rash of how-to articles on saving a buck in the veterinarian's office and consumer complaints in Internet chat rooms, Flanigan contends that, as a whole, the public appears largely unmoved. Leaders have long been concerned that higher prices might erode public opinion that rates veterinarians high in honesty and ethics compared to other professionals. But that's not a realistic trade off, Flanigan says.

For starters, AVMA's recent public perception survey of 3,073 households, 60 percent of which own pets, reveals the bond between humans and animals is driving up the perceived value of veterinary services and decreasing the perception of high fees. In December, a Gallup poll placed veterinarians third on its annual ethics and honesty chart (see story), and results from AVMA's questionnaire asking a nearly identical question rated veterinarians first in honesty, with physicians, attorneys, teachers and politicians bringing up the rear.

Although 61 percent of those same respondents noted the rise in DVM fees, two-thirds blamed inflation and half pinned increases on drug companies. Given the ability to pick more than one choice, 38 percent of respondents also attributed increases to advances in medical treatments while a third pointed the finger at veterinarians.

When asked to choose what professions command high incomes, veterinarians ranked fourth behind attorneys, physicians and politicians. Ninety-three percent of those same respondents report they are somewhat or very confident in the medical skills of a DVM.

It's clear the human-animal bond plays a role in the public's perception of veterinarians, Flanigan says.

"The public adores veterinarians. They believe they are smart, compassionate and empathetic people," he says.

Value perception

That bond also influences how wide an owner is willing to open his or her wallet and correlates with a services value perception, research shows.

According to AVMA, 40 percent of the public polled characterized veterinary services as expensive. Yet for owners who considered their last experience in a DVM's office as clean, compassionate and high-tech, a greater proportion rated the fees inexpensive.

"The people who viewed the veterinarians' fees as inexpensive were more likely to see the experience as cleaner, quieter and high-tech," Flanigan says. "They went to the veterinarian just as often as everyone else polled, but because they see such value in their experience, they rate it as inexpensive."

On that same note, more than 50 percent of owners suggested they would pay a limitless amount of money to save their pet's life, and 93 percent believes that the care a DVM provides is as good or better than their own medical care.

Losing DVMs in all sectors

Such a high level of service might soon be tough to come by, AVMA says. While the KPMG study predicted 2007 would mark the greatest over-inflated supply of veterinarians in history compared to demand, the theory has burst.

"We've been hearing there's a shortage of veterinarians in laboratory, biomedical, food supply and federal practice," Flanigan says. "The question has always been whether there is an oversupply in companion animal practice."

Not so, AVMA data suggests. According to the group's biannual economic survey, the average full-time veterinarian worked 42.2 hours per week in 2003 — roughly four hours less than in 1989. During that 14-year period, AVMA calculates the loss of 6,000 to 7,000 full-time-equivalent DVMs, and the trend is continuing, officials say.

"It would finally appear we've cracked the mystery on companion animal practice. Any perception that we had an oversupply of the veterinary workforce in that sector has been blown away," Flanigan says.

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