What will ‘normal’ look like after COVID-19?

VettedVetted June 2020
Volume 115
Issue 6

As shelter-in-place restrictions are lifted throughout the country, the full impact of the pandemic shutdown will come into clearer focus. Here are four major challenges veterinary practices can expect—and how to handle them.

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As veterinary hospitals try to return to business as usual in the wake of nationwide shutdowns related to the novel coronavirus pandemic, they do so in the face of a global recession, continued COVID-19 outbreaks, employees unwilling to return to work and lingering fears about disease transmission. Here are four challenges that you and your team can expect to confront in the months ahead, with suggestions for mitigating their impact on your business and your staff.

Challenge 1: Recession

Most economists agree that we’re not just headed for a recession; we’re already in one. The question is how long will it last? To mitigate the crisis, Congress has greased the paddles of a ginormous economic defibrillator with nearly three trillion dollars as a way to get the heart of American business beating again.

But it’s not just the U.S. that’s in danger of flatlining; the rest of the world’s economy is also a worrisome blue. Improved consumer confidence, intact supply chains, and some way for the service industry to recover or transform is required before we can return to more sanguine times.

What to do

Prepare your business as best you can for a recession:

  • Hold on to as much cash as possible. Request forbearance from your creditors as needed.
  • Reduce your inventory, and use any existing down time to review and implement inventory management best practices.
  • Stay abreast of federal and state aid packages for which your business may be eligible.
  • Review your exit strategy. Practice owners interested in selling should talk with potential buyers now.
  • Devise ways to improve the efficiency of your new workflow and lower costs.
  • Manage your high-interest debt.

Challenge 2: No ‘all clear’ date

COVID-19 infections may continue to crop up regionally, dampening economic activity and in some cases instigating new community-wide lockdowns. Consumers may also choose to sit tight for another month or two at home because of lingering fears of infection.

Keep in mind that one of your team members may test positive for the virus, forcing all practice employees to self-quarantine and your business to close. Expect a dizzying array of what-should-I-do scenarios as team members exhibit mild symptoms of allergies or illness that you and your coworkers fret may be signs of COVID-19.

What to do

Revisit your sick leave policy in the wake of COVID-19. Decide how you will handle employees’ potential exposure to COVID-19, when it’s okay for COVID-19–positive employees to return to work and how you will manage employees’ varying levels of fear about infection. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Society for Human Resource Management are a great place to start when considering plans.

Make a plan for how your practice will operate post COVID-19. Many practice teams have determined that some of their pandemic protocols will be more efficient and client-friendly than their former protocols, and will become part of normal practice.

If you haven’t already, explore telemedicine providers. Use this time to get acquainted with the technology and start thinking about how to use it to best service your clients while continuing to generate revenue.

What about infection control?

The CDC, OSHA, WHO and AVMA have all weighed in on workplace safety in the wake of COVID-19. If you’re still wearing a mask and gloves come September, it will be just as much because of the cautionary guidelines set forth by various government and professional entities as it will be out of concern for your own personal safety.

Personal protective equipment (PPE) and increased facility disinfection will add cost and time to appointments. They will also affect how we are perceived by clients. Engaging in delicate discussions about end-of-life or financing with half of our face concealed will confound our ability to demonstrate empathy and register understanding. Use educational resources like those provided by Virox Animal Health, to train team members how to properly disinfect hospital surfaces.

If you are compelled to follow local or regional guidelines on the use of PPE, then practice the new protocols for time and cost efficiencies. Also discuss with your team the clinical look of masks, gloves and gowns, and how you can work around them to continue to instill a sense of warmth, trust, compassion and understanding, both to clients and to one another.

Challenge 3: Cash-strapped clients and cautious spenders

Thus far, about 75% of American workers have emerged from the COVID-19 shakeup relatively unscathed, but for many service workers, farmers, the travel industry and the poor, the pandemic has created crippling hardship. Depending on where you live and what kind of industries are in your area, you may find that your clients don’t have the money they once had for pet care, even if it’s urgent care.

What to do

First, review local and national economic forecasts as a way to understand your community’s progress through the recession. Then, keep the following points in mind:

  • Pet owners will look to online sources for answers. Write (and share on your website and via social media) material that not only helps pet owners find those answers, but also introduces them to the affordable care that your practice provides.
  • Consider using telemedicine platforms to offer generalized tele-advice as a way to meet new clients and introduce them to your practice. These platforms can build on clients’ newfound affinity for managing their lives, and the lives of their pets, online.
  • Do not resort to knee-jerk instincts to lower prices or give away services unless doing so is part of a larger structured strategy to grow overall revenue.
  • Younger pet owners are more likely than older pet owners to adapt quickly to the post–COVID-19 economy. These young people approach health care more holistically and may be looking for alternatives to the traditional allopathic model. Pivot your focus of annual visits away from vaccines to more competitive services like titers, especially inhouse ones like those offered by VacciCheckor Zoetis that have the benefits of being low cost and timely.
  • Weigh the optics of offering payment plans. Companies like Vetbilling.com have low default rates and a line of financial products that many veterinary hospitals find extremely helpful.
  • Keep lines of communication to the shelters open for more information on how the economic downfall is affecting a broader sampling of your pet-owning community. Review your policy on pet relinquishment and convenience euthanasia, and be sure to provide your team members with sensitivity training on the topic.

Challenge 4: Persistent callouts and HR issues

Regardless of whether you are permitted to return to normal business activity, regional outbreaks may cause local school and business shutdowns that will force your parent-workers to stay home with children. Some employees may fear returning to work and will resign. Some furloughed employees may qualify for both unemployment and additional CARES Act funds, and find that in its haste to rescue workers from economic catastrophe the federal government has given them more money to stay at home than to return to work.

Other employees will exceed the maximum number of paid hours they have left for the year, even exhausting the additional time allowed for by the CARES Act. Expect a significant portion of your and your practice manager’s time to be consumed with addressing unemployment claims, CARES Act–related Payroll Protection Plan issues and applications to other aid packages as they become available.

What to do

Review your state laws regarding full-time and and part-time layoffs, being mindful of the internal and external optics of layoffs. Handle such discussions with delicacy and respect.

Stay transparent with your team regarding your financial needs as a business owner, but don’t use your predicament to reproach your staff for what you may regard as their insensitivity to your plight.

There will likely be an uptick in the number of people looking for employment. Revisit the way you hire employees, and try to take as much of it online as you can.

Last but not least

COVID-19 has put pressure on all of us. Don’t underestimate the ability of stress to ruin your professional and personal relationships, negatively color your decision-making and take a toll on your health. Take control of your wellbeing through the many available veterinary resources, including dvm360.com and the Fetch dvm360 conferences.

Despite the bleak forecast, change can be as much an opportunity as a liability. If you push yourself to see the world as a source of positives instead of negatives, your decisions are more likely to propel you toward a positive outcome.

Strong leadership, on every level, is how we’ll navigate our way forward successfully as a nation and world. The same is true for your business. It’s okay to be human, but try to be the best human you can be. It will make your job easier, garner loyalty from your team, and help you recognize your best attributes and to evolve as a person.

Bash Halow, CVPM, LVT, is a graduate of the College of William and Mary and of the Veterinary Management Institute series at Purdue University. During his 20 years as a veterinary professional, Bash has served as a practice manager, regional manager position and hospital administrator before opening his practice management consulting business, Halow Consulting. Bash is also a regular Fetch dvm360 speaker.

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