Wake up to the realities of Internet pharmacies


They're here to stay. And the sites that target consumers are making heavy-duty media buys. Are you often doing enough to explain why clients should buy medications from you?

Have you seen a pet prescription commercial lately? One has several clients sitting impatiently in a veterinary hospital's reception area grousing about having to waste time waiting for their pet's medication and the cost of it. (Those who've seen it may also remember the feeling of your blood beginning to boil.)

I've heard a lot of grumblings from practitioners. "They're spreading lies and hurting our business," you say. And yet I've seen few veterinarians do more than roll over and surrender.

No matter what your opinions about consumer-focused Internet pharmacies are, they're here to stay. So what are you going to do? How are you going to respond?

Before you debate the merits of tucking your tail, consider this: When you look at the square feet you use, your pharmacy is likely the most profitable area in your practice. Are you willing to give up that 15 percent to 20 percent of your income without a fight? Your online competitors are betting you are.

Another reason to fight: The medications you dispense are important for your patients. This service should be provided by licensed veterinarians who know what they're doing and who have complete patient medical records and an established relationship with the client and patient.

Quick fact

Get educated

Of course before you jump into battle, you need to know your opponent. Some Internet pharmacies are very reputable; others are down right unethical. Some want to circumvent you and take all your pharmacy income; some want to collaborate for a piece of the pie. (For more, see "Not All Pharmacies are Created Equal".)

One way to educate yourself and your team: Get online and place an order for a commonly used product such as flea and tick medication or heartworm preventive. Go all the way to the "checkout screen." (You can cancel the order at the very end.) What was the total price? How did it compare to yours? Was the process easy or time consuming? What was the advantage of ordering over the Internet?

From our mailbox

According to a news exposé by Channel 5 News, WCVB in Boston, "in all but one case the medication purchased from the veterinarian was less expensive" than the consumer Internet pharmacy they tested. Clients aren't getting this important message. We can't let the flow of misinformation continue. You and your team need to ensure clients know the truth.

Once you know what you're dealing with, you can decide how you wish to compete. What could you do to make it easier for clients to refill a prescription with you? Can clients order the medication through your practice Web site? Can they e-mail you a request to refill a prescription? Will you mail the medication to their house? Will you refill a prescription automatically and send it to the client? Are you pricing competitively?

Explaining your approach (click to enlarge)

Next, develop a strategy for handling requests from online pharmacies. For example, I recommend instead of simply signing faxed medication requests, you require clients to contact you directly. This gives you an opportunity to talk to the client—in the nicest possible manner—about why they should buy the medication from your practice instead.

Inform your clients

Some practices offer to match any price a client finds online. Although they report success with this strategy, I'm not sure I'd recommend it. This concept brings the entire issue down to price, which I don't feel is appropriate. We must show clients that they're not comparing apples with apples.

What to tell clients (click to enlarge)

I know one veterinarian who tells his clients that he's a little more expensive than some Internet pharmacies but that it's necessary so he can operate a full-service veterinary hospital, and if he didn't make a profit in the pharmacy, he'd have to raise his fees on other services. This veterinarian tells me his clients appreciate his honesty and have remained loyal to him.

Price, you see, is only one factor in the pharmacy puzzle. Help your clients dig deeper. What happens if the pet has a medication reaction at 3 a.m.? Who will the client call, the veterinarian or the Internet pharmacy? What happens if the pet contracts heartworm disease while on a preventive obtained through an Internet pharmacy? Will the manufacturer pay for the treatment? No! What if a medication obtained through the Internet pharmacy has a negative effect when taken with another medication? Will the pharmacy be aware of this and inform the client? No!

Not all pharmacies are created equal

Clients don't hear about these problems in television commercials. Most clients don't know that some medications obtained from an Internet pharmacy are being offered off label or have been bought outside the United States. This is important information—and you're their best source. So let's get the message out!

One way to disseminate all this knowledge is to give a handout to any client who asks about online pharmacies. Your handout should educate clients about why they should continue to get their prescriptions from you, a licensed veterinarian. (You'll find a sample below.)

Keep yourself out of legal hot water (click to enlarge)

Some practices take this concept a step further by developing handouts on the most commonly requested products. They list the product name with their price and the prices of Internet-based providers. Staff members then explain why they recommend that the client purchase the medication through the practice.

I believe clients want a full-service approach. They don't want to go to one place for preventive care, to another for boarding and grooming, and to a third for surgery. They'd like your team to meet all their pet care needs.

So when the client comes in to pick up a medication, he or she should be met by a friendly person who takes a genuine interest in both the client and pet. When you offer excellent customer service and care, clients won't want to leave your practice to face the harsher world outside your doors.

Take advantage of your strengths. Your practice employs highly talented people who are well-trained in veterinary medicine and customer service. Use this great resource to your advantage.

Wake up!

As you can probably tell, I'm passionate about this subject. Veterinarians are just too nice. You don't want to create problems or make ripples in the pond. But by being passive, I think you're hurting yourself, your profession, and, most important, your patients.

If you give up your pharmacy as a profit center, you'll either need to increase your prices in other areas or take a reduction in pay. If you reduce your compensation, how will this profession continue to attract the best and the brightest?

You are the patient's best advocate. And it's in the pet's best interest to receive medications through you. For these reasons, we can't roll over. We must fight this encroachment and educate clients.

Mark Opperman is a hospital management editor and a certified veterinary practice manager and owner of VMC Inc., a veterinary consulting firm based in Evergreen, Colo. Send your questions and comments to ve@advanstar.com.

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