What Corporate Veterinary Clinics Mean to You and How to Get With the Times

By Karin Krisher

A veterinary clinic might be the last place we expect to find corporate culture, marked by the presence of such concepts and actions as evaluations, business models, reviews, financial goals, and human interest corporate veterinary clinicsand understanding. We’re right not to expect it—most  practices are not corporate veterinary clinics; most focus on medicine and healing, and not on themselves as a business entity. But is this really the best way to stake a name (and a profit) for your practice (or, if you’re a consumer, is this the type of practice you feel best suits your needs)?

The obvious answer is that people want to feel that the culture of healing exists, and need a personal tie to the practice in order to return. However, the obvious answer isn’t always the most correct. The best way to ensure that a practice experience is valuable and successful in creating and maintaining that healing/medicinal culture is to become involved with the business culture, however daunting and counterintuitive it may seem.

Shawn McVey’s recent presentation at the Vermont Veterinarian Medical Association meeting confirmed that veterinary practices spend, on average, more time concerned with medicine than with business. Again, this seems like a good thing—a testament to the value veterinarians place on themselves as healers.  But McVey, owner of McVey Management Solutions and a boon in the world of corporate veterinary guidance, insists that approaching the business elements of the practice is not only helpful in achieving the conceptual goals of the practice, but even necessary to overall success.

McVey noted the importance of recognizing the statistics: In the last 15 years, human medicine has emerged as a corporate entity, and animal medicine has closely followed that lead. In 1999, Veterinary Centers of America owned just 1.5 percent of United States clinics. That number jumped to 4 percent in 2005, and today, VCA owns 9 percent of all veterinary clinic practices in the US.  VCA emphasizes educational outreach, information exchange, and the value of established and enacted techniques and procedures, and is a growing force as a corporate entity in the world of veterinary medicine.

Why the success of corporate veterinary clinics, and how can individual practices achieve similar success without losing their personal values?

VCA has recognized and reacted to some of the most obvious conflicts facing veterinary practices today: veterinarians, by default, spend time working in the business rather than on the business, and practices attempt to function like private medical firms, but do so in a retail space. The retail environment demands more corporate-esque concepts and actions, such as better customer service, the inclusion of salespeople, and attention to details like office hours reflective of retailers’.

VCA has also recognized that it can be difficult to motivate individuals to enter that space, and even more difficult to implement the ideals on the ground level. McVey’s tips for success in implementation span several categories, but all focus on creating a learning culture. Here, we’ll focus on just three categorical ways to foster that culture: finance, employees and education.

Financially, veterinary practices fall behind because of limited knowledge and reaction to their goals (if goals exist). Profit goals are necessary to the measurement of success, and so is an understanding of how finance affects the day-to-day business. This is not to say that we can only measure success based on revenue streams or expenditures, but instead that we have a better opportunity to understand financial success if these types of goals and evaluations are in place.  Improving the ability to discuss money with clients also benefits the financial structure of the practice.

Similarly, understanding employee compensation is necessary to attaining these goals.  How employees are compensated for their work is reflective of the practice’s financial goals. Many practices offer compensation based on longevity or seniority, or even revenue stream associated with the employee, while many practices do not participate in evaluating employees by any standardized system, instead focusing on subjective observance. When leaders focus on individual and team success, and compensation based on this, changes occur.

Specifically, when review exists, learning occurs—and the learning culture is the most important facet of this discussion. If a practice has no system for review of actions, little learning can take place. However, when leaders are active in questioning and listening to dialogue and debate about the business’ success, practice employees feel a sense of encouragement. This sense is carried over into the entire educational environment of the practice.

Becoming educated is no easy task, and learning itself is something that is notoriously difficult to monitor. However, there are steps toward education that any practice manager can take to improve employee understanding and practice function. For example, encouraging discussion and after-action reviews with proper terminology (instead of error or investigation, use terms like incident and analysis) can promote employee confidence and willingness to improve for the success of the practice.

Learning most often occurs when people are exposed to new knowledge in a safe space that encourages reflection. Knowledge within the practice, therefore, must flow both laterally and vertically, with respect to each individual employee and leader. A working flow of information can have a huge impact on the ease of daily operations, and on the ability to review and learn.

These types of fundamental changes may seem impossible to implement at a small practice, but there are tools to help. Researching and incorporating a successful model (like HBR online) is necessary for overall success. Customers (and patients) will be more satisfied with any service that treats them like a valued customer (and that they can identify as a business, first and foremost), and employees will be more satisfied with a position in which success is valued, encouraged and evident.

Changes are imminent in the world of veterinary medicine. As corporations grow and buy, and small practices fall by the wayside due to a simple lack of awareness of their own business model, it can be vital to the health of those small practices to take steps toward acting like businesses, too.

The first step is analysis—stepping back to work on the business instead of in it can be crucial to moving forward. Perhaps discussing the business model with a consultant would save the analysis from falling victim to total subjectivity, which can present roadblocks to change.

Whatever each practice chooses, it is most important that their leaders are aware of a changing animal health environment and make a decision to somehow adjust the practice in the appropriate direction. Veterinary medicine is no longer a totally individualized space—instead, there are standards falling into place that are reflective of both the practice’s and the customers’ needs.

These standards, of course, can be individually applicable to the practice. After all, personal touch has always spoken volumes in the world of animal medicine, and with this new outlook and strategy, so too will organization, communication and efficiency.

Have you noted the struggle between corporate veterinary clinics and small practices? Do you have any plans in place for focusing on the business? Share some tips in our comments section!