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Is veterinary medicine too transparent?
A profession open about its economic woes needs veterinary associations to 'spin' negative public perception to make clients understand the need-and struggle-for financially strapped veterinarians to make a profit.
I took a call a few months ago from a Wall Street Journal editor working on a follow-up to that terrible 20/20 story on veterinarians ("Is your veterinarian being honest with you?"). He asked me interesting questions, but one of them really got me thinking: Did I think the profession was too transparent about veterinarians' practice finances?
He was referring to articles written by myself and others about how to increase profits or per-client transactions—you know, articles dealing with making money. He asked how people outside our profession might view and interpret those articles. I remember about a year ago, a Canadian TV crew gained access to a veterinary meeting in Banff. They filmed a speaker who presented a seminar on practice management and how to increase profits with a title like, "How to get the most out of your client visit." The resulting film clip was shown on a news program in Canada. I remember thinking, for one, that I could have been that speaker (which I was glad I was not) and, two, how slanted and biased the piece was.
So, are we too transparent as a profession? We can't be the only profession that deals with this, but unless I'm just being sensitive, it seems like we're the ones who are misrepresented the most. Should we be more careful about the things we write about and discuss at lectures and meetings? Should we be more sensitive to the topics and titles we use so clients don't get the impression we're all rich and only out to get more and more of their money?
It's all about perception
Many Americans believe veterinarians make a great deal of money. People are usually quite surprised when I tell them that's not the case. In fact, veterinarians are the lowest-paid medical professionals, with an average starting salary of around $60,000 a year. Veterinarians must complete four years of graduate school, accumulating an average debt of more than $160,000. Most people are astounded by this information. Why is the public so misinformed and whose job is it to inform them of the truth?
Dr. Marty Becker was interviewed in the controversial 20/20 piece "Is your veterinarian being honest with you?" His answers were used in a way that reflected the negative slant the piece took toward the profession.
Now we're getting to the heart of the problem. In my opinion, it's the job of state and national veterinary medical associations to educate the public about our profession and to make it known that veterinarians are not "in it for the money." Veterinarians don't do procedures just to generate more income. In fact, they give away services every day and, in my opinion, are probably the most generous medical professionals of all. The public doesn't know the amount of debt veterinarians incur to pay for education, and they don't know what it costs to purchase, build and maintain a veterinary hospital. The average person simply doesn't realize the sacrifices most veterinarians make in their personal lives to be veterinarians.
Most of us still remember that article Consumer Reports back in 2011 encouraging pet owners to shop around when it came to flea and tick preventives as well as veterinary procedures. In my opinion, it was a terrible piece that, again, was biased against the veterinary profession. What did our state and national associations do about that article? To my knowledge, they wrote a letter to Consumer Reports telling them how bad the article was—that's it! Compare that response to, let's say, Martha Stewart being arrested. People with means employ what's known as "spin." In those cases, there was tremendous "spin" to offset the bad press. You saw news stories about all the charitable things Martha Stewart did. Where was our "spin" after the Consumer Reports story or, for that matter, after the 20/20 piece?
A duty to educate
I'm not naming any one state or national association, because I don't think any of them do a great job in this regard. I'm also not sure if it's entirely their fault. It's my guess that, if I asked them why they don't do more public education and "spin," they would respond that they don't have the money or maybe their members don't consider this a topic of importance. Yet there is something very scary going on in our profession that should be of great concern to them. I'm fortunate enough to have the opportunity to lecture to future veterinarians at a majority of the veterinary schools every year. One of the questions I always ask students is, "Is it important to you to be employed by a practice that is a member of the American Animal Hospital Association?" What do you think is the typical response? Does 80 percent of the class feel it's important? Or 50 percent of the class? Unfortunately, whether it's the University of Florida or Cornell University, the response is consistently less than 10 percent. This blows my mind. I've been teaching at veterinary schools for more than 15 years and it used to be that half or more of the class would put up their hands when asked that question. Students no longer want to belong to AAHA because they don't see the value and it no longer stands for the "seal of approval."
What does student disinterest in associations mean for the profession? If not our state and national associations, who is going to be the voice of reason? Who will educate the public about how amazing this profession really is? I tell veterinary students that they can either stand outside and complain or get involved and, hopefully, make a difference. I suggest they get involved in their state and national associations and encourage those associations to do a better job in public education about our profession.
The last question that the Wall Street Journal editor asked me was whether I think that negative press is tarnishing the image of veterinary medicine. I had to think about this for a minute, but responded in the affirmative. Unfortunately, I do feel that the image of our profession has indeed been tarnished. Though some might say I am not a veterinarian and therefore have no right to call this profession mine, I have devoted my life to veterinarians and helping them succeed. And I am impressed every day by the amazing people drawn to veterinary medicine. The students I teach say they've wanted to be veterinarians for as long as they can remember—not to become rich, but to make a difference in animals' lives. The veterinarians I work with every day invest hundreds of thousands of dollars—sometimes millions—in their practices, work untold hours, sacrifice personal lives for patients and give all they have to be the best they can be. These are the stories that need to be told in the media, not that we're trying to upsell clients on services they don't need. Unless someone has a better idea, I think it's time for all of us to get active and involved in our state and national organizations and encourage them to be more proactive and educate the general public about how amazing veterinary medicine truly is.
Mark Opperman, CVPM, is a certified veterinary practice manager and owner of VMC Inc., a veterinary consulting firm based in Evergreen, Colo.