Stop overestimating corporate practice

April 18, 2017
Brian Conrad, CVPM
Brian Conrad, CVPM

Brian Conrad, CVPM, has been the practice manager for Meadow Hills Veterinary Center in Kennewick, Wash., since 1999. During his tenure at Meadow Hills, the clinic has been named Veterinary Economics Hospital of the Year in 2001 and the 2004 Mid-Columbia Small Business of the Year. Conrad is a frequent lecturer for the Fetch dvm360 conferences and a contributor to Veterinary Economics and Firstline magazines. He was recently appointed to the board of directors for the Veterinary Hospital Management Association.

The world of veterinary medicine is always evolving. Should we really be staying stuck in time to keep private practices safe from corporate medicine?

Photo: Shutterstock/Romolo TavaniEditor's note:Brian Conrad is president of the Veterinary Hospital Managers Association, but the opinions expressed below are his own and don't necessarily reflect those of the VHMA.

Let's travel back 20 years to a $21 billion veterinary industry-equivalent to about $31 billion today. Now, travel forward to present day: In 2017, the amount of money spent on pet care has doubled to $62 billion.

And here's the thing: We haven't doubled the pet population, which means that with technology and medical advancements, pet owners are all spending more money on their pets to keep them happy and healthy. And a lot of smart businesspeople in the world are starting to notice that money.

I've always said that the veterinary industry is so exciting to me and that the best is yet to come. So it frustrates me when people step backward, not forward, and revert to what veterinary medicine was like 20 years ago. This is all in the name of saving independent practices from corporate medicine in order to keep things the same. Whether it's corporate or independent, change must occur to meet the needs of the clients.

We forget how many other things have changed, because that $62 billion comes with many different business models. We've seen low-cost care crop up. We've seen nonprofits teaming up with municipalities. In five to ten years, we'll see telemedicine as one of the biggest growth sectors, followed by mobile. There are a lot of different changes going on, and yet we're still focused on the world ending because of corporate practice.

Are our fears really warranted?

First of all, corporate practice is relatively small. Numbers published show that corporate practices make up about 10 percent of veterinary hospitals. For example, if you live in a community with 20 veterinary hospitals, on average two of them are probably corporate. So why aren't you more worried about the other 17 practices competing with you?

Second, when it comes down to it, regardless of who they work for, veterinarians have taken an oath to do no harm. Corporate practices have increased the level of medicine, investing in education, equipment and products. Some large corporations even have chief medical officers and directors whose sole job is to make sure the medicine is continually advancing and evolving.

No hospital will get away with poor quality

in this transparent world.

This isn't just about veterinary medicine. It's about the quality of standards you want to see in general. You used to be able to say there were people that had good quality and others that didn't. Today, we live in a transparent world where consumers are empowered, and they know what they deserve when it comes to quality. No hospital will get away with poor quality in this transparent 140-character world.

Corporate practices aren't all the same (neither are you!)

There are 35 to 40 corporate entities, and they all have different philosophies and work styles they think work best for them. Some stick to more set medical standards-and, personally, I don't see how more direction can be a bad thing. When it comes to creating standards of care for patients, it's not that we don't want the doctors thinking-we don't want the doctors forgetting.

It's not that we don't want the doctors thinking-

we don't want the doctors forgetting.

It's not like corporations are sending associates out to gain CE on how to do bad medicine or take shortcuts in order to make more money. These are your colleagues. Veterinarians are focused on getting their patients help. I find it hard to come across a veterinarian who doesn't want the best care for their patient. In the veterinary profession, we all have the same focus; we're just going about it in a different way.

Corporate practices focus on clients (and you can too!)

When we get down to it, one of the biggest challenges we all face is helping pet owners pay for services. We still have Care Credit and other payment options in the world. And pet insurance here has barely scratched the surface of the market, compared to places like the United Kingdom. Regardless of the path, we're all looking for ways to break down these fees.

The kicker? Corporate practices will recognize this faster. They know it's about the client-they have branches devoted to client experiences. And now they're taking it to the next level by figuring out how to take care of their employees. I've seen both sides: I worked for more than 15 years for independent practice owners before they sold to VCA. I see both sides, and both sides look pretty good to me.

But here's the thing: Competing against corporate practice didn't and doesn't scare me in the least (although I work for VCA now). Customers and clients want consistency. It's not poor medicine to have medical standards. Corporate consolidators and chains understand this and are working toward that goal, and it's a goal that independent practices can work toward as well.

Corporate practices offer special benefits to team members (and you should too!)

There are positives and negatives to both a practice owned independently and a practice owned by a corporation. Corporate practice often has a wider variety of staff benefits and a better roadmap for employee advancement. On the other side, private independent owners can be way more flexible and fast, and have more room to make exceptions to make conscious decisions to positively impact the employees.

The best metaphorical advice I've ever received on veterinary competition is this: If you have a window in your veterinary practice's office, you should take a can of black paint and paint the glass until you can't see out. In other words, we're so focused on what our competitors down the street are doing that we're not paying attention to our own practice. A lot of independent practices are doing phenomenal work and many more of us should be taking notes on their success-but I'm more worried about the independent practices out there that refuse to change. We need to invest in client service and staff retention to take better care of the patients we love.

The practices that stay relevant to their client base, maintain educated staff and continue to innovate and change will thrive for years to come. Whether independent or corporate, no matter what you are, if you do these things you're going to prosper.

Brian Conrad, CVPM, has been the practice manager for Meadow Hills Veterinary Center in Kennewick, Wash., since 1999. He was appointed to the board of directors in 2011 and currently serves as the president for the Veterinary Hospital Management Association (VHMA).