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Training for the business of patient care


VBMA chapters train students on customer service, negotiation, leadership and management skills.

Education debt load represents a veterinary medical graduate's biggest challenge, experts say. Now there's a fast-growing group specifically charged with helping students meet that challenge with business education.

It's called the Veterinary Business Management Association (VBMA), an organization created by students, for students, with chapters in nearly all U.S. veterinary medical institutions. With 2,300 members, reflecting a 23-percent growth spurt since 2006, the group bills itself as the world's largest independent veterinary student organization. Its mission: to offer future veterinarians extra training for the business side of practice.

VBMA's three newest chapters are at Michigan State University, Oregon State University and Oklahoma State University. The group even has an international link with a chapter at Murdoch University in Australia, with another forming at Ross University on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts. Texas A&M is the only U.S. veterinary institution without a VBMA chapter, but students there are changing that, says Tonya Sparks, national VBMA president.

All the attention is a good sign, considering many veterinary medical graduates owe more than $100,000 in student loans, says Sparks, a third-year student at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine.

That burden, combined with relatively low starting salaries, is a new graduate's biggest hurdle, she says.

"It's usually very hard to balance that debt with the cost of living and doing business. Students need to find out what steps they can take that will affect their salary — to bring it up."

What VBMA offers

Run by students, each chapter is responsible for its own programming, which includes hands-on experiences and lectures by leading veterinary-business consultants.

A key objective for new graduates, Sparks says, is to learn how practices are run and how income is generated.

"Some at first may not realize how a practice that generates $1.5 million of annual income must divvy up that money — that part of it goes to inventory, overhead, team sharing and other things," Sparks says. "They may think they're not earning in proportion to what they're bringing in, so they have to learn to adopt the team principle and why the money has to be divided in various ways for the practice to succeed."

It falls on the national VBMA to provide such business education for its members. The group plans to host a series of lectures during January's North American Veterinary Conference in Orlando, Fla.

It's "our biggest project," Sparks says.

"We have to arrange funding, line up speakers and in other ways prepare to host about 100 veterinary students," she explains.

VBMA officers also are preparing an article for an upcoming issue of the Journal of Veterinary Medical Education. It's aimed at "helping veterinary-college administrators and faculties better understand the value of VBMA and use it as a resource in improving business-education courses," Sparks says.

The national group also works to enhance member benefits and perks by arranging professional journal subscriptions and discounts on veterinary business and legal publications.

Innovative VBMA chapters

Local VBMA chapters arrange their own programs to advance business and practice-management education, and help members network with professionals.

Some chapters are innovative, Sparks says, citing the University of Missouri group as an example.

"Ever hear of speed dating, where singles move from table to table, chatting for five minutes at a time with a series of potential dates?" Sparks asks. "The MU chapter arranged something like that, bringing about 50 veterinarians and 60 students together to network round-robin style."

It happened at the Missouri Veterinary Medical Association's annual meeting earlier this year (see related story, "Mini-interviews boost exposure to jobs, externships"). Fifty tables were set up, at which students were given five minutes to visit with professionals before a whistle sounded, signaling participants to rotate. Afterward, students and prospective employers met during a social hour to continue conversations.

"It was a great communication tool, giving students some interviewing practice with veterinarians and hospital administrators who might want to hire them in a year or two. It's expected to become an annual event, and I've heard that other chapters now want to try it, too," Sparks says.

Another energetic VBMA chapter is at Kansas State University, Sparks says. The group arranged a Progressive Practice Management conference last fall titled "Improving Animal Care." The conference featured nationally known consultants and lecturers on marketing, fostering client compliance, patient care, the latest veterinary software programs and effective use of the Internet in practice.

"Each chapter sets its own agenda and programs," Sparks explains. "Because communication skills are so important in dealing with staff and clients, a lot of them (chapter activities) focus on that."

Other popular subject areas for VBMA chapters include customer service, negotiation, leadership and management skills.

VBMA sponsors include Hill's Pet Nutrition and Novartis Animal Health. To get involved, visit www.vbma.biz.

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