Veterinarians look for ways to unleash new revenues after recession

When the U.S. economy crashed in 2008, veterinarians felt the bite as fewer people took pets to the vet. So Dr. Kipp Metzger, general practitioner veterinarian and owner of Animal Health Hospital, P.C., had to reduce staff hours and keep less medical-supply inventory on his shelves.

Metzger, who’s been in the veterinary business for almost 20 years and a business owner since 2000, says he planned ahead enough to avoid living paycheck-to-paycheck, but he still had to cut back on family activities like eating out and taking big vacations.

Metzger also had to increase his marketing efforts, using social media to promote his practice at 2560 S. Harrison Rd. “It’s part of running a business. You know it’s like if you’re on a walk and it rains; you have an idea of what you’re going to do. You’re going to go stand under an awning, or you’re going to put on your raincoat, or you’re going to put your umbrella up,” Metzger said.

“Business is the same way. When business challenges arise, you strategize and think strategically about how you can preserve your business and continue to take care of your staff and continue to provide great services and take great care of our pets.”

Photo courtesy of Ventana Animal Hospital
Photo: Ventana Animal Hospital

After the economy went sour, veterinary visits declined in the U.S. This decline has affected almost all veterinarians as many of them haven’t been seeing their capacity of patients in recent years, according to Michael Kaufman, president of the Southern Arizona Veterinary Medical Association.

A 2013 study from the American Veterinary Medical Association found that “the nation’s veterinary capacity is likely to be underutilized by 11 to 14 percent through 2025.”

The study, published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, also determined that the demand in 2012 would require 78,950 fully employed veterinarians. Yet there were 90,200 veterinarians on the books that year.

This isn’t to say 11,250 veterinarians were unemployed, but instead it showed how much veterinary services are being underutilized. Kaufman said he believes colleges and trade schools should counsel students going into veterinary school and inform them of the financial realities of the industry.

“I think a lot of people wanting to become veterinarians, they follow their hearts more than realizing the economic realities,” Kaufman said.

Having to make changes was not easy for Metzger, as he had to figure out how to maintain his business through the recession without laying anyone off. During that time, he also saw an increase in health care costs, adding to that stress. Despite this increase, Metzger said he still supplied his staff with 100 percent healthcare coverage.

“It made my job significantly more stressful,” Metzger said. “Part of being a business owner is that you take care of the people that work for us.”

Metzger also had to keep up with medical advances and more modern medical equipment that’s been introduced to the field in the past six years. Animal Health Hospital’s floor is currently stripped down to a charcoal cement and workers are keeping busy during the day remodeling the lobby and hallway of the clinic. Metzger said other than having some painting done, he’d been unable to upgrade the clinic since 2008.

“It will probably help retain business because it’ll be nicer in here and certainly moving forward you don’t want people to walk into your hospital and have it look like it’s from the ‘80s,” Metzger said.

The clinic’s gross revenue significantly declined in 2009 but has gradually seen a single-digit growth in revenue the last couple of years.

“We’re still not back to where we were you know in 2008 as far as clients seen and that sort of thing although it’s getting slowly better,” Metzger said.

The veterinary association also publishes a report every five years detailing pet demographics in the U.S. The most recent report from 2011 showed an 8 percent increase in households with dogs that don’t visit the veterinarian.  The number of cat owners that don’t visit the vet increased 24 percent.                                                     

While some clients may not know the importance of taking their pets to regular physical check-ups at least once a year, Kaufman said, others just can’t afford to do so. One of the biggest issues veterinarians face is maintaining affordable costs for pet owners in an unhealthy economy.

“As much as we hate to admit it, veterinary care is a discretionary expense for many people,” said David Kirkpatrick, a spokesman for the veterinary association.

Pet owners also tend to visit the vet only if their pet is sick rather than on a regular basis for check-ups, according to Kirkpatrick. Regular visits can be cheaper in the long run if diseases are prevented rather than treated.

“There are a lot of diseases out there whether it be diabetes, whether it be arthritis, whether it be tick and other parasite-borne diseases, and probably most commonly obesity, that are preventable or at least can be managed a little bit better with regular visits to the veterinarian,” Kirkpatrick said.

But some veterinary clinics have created incentives for pet owners to bring in their pet regularly. Ventana Animal Hospital in the northwest side of Tucson began offering its clients free vaccinations for life about a month ago. The catch: the clients must bring in their pet twice a year for a regular checkup.

Photo courtesy of Ventana Animal Hospital
Photo: Ventana Animal Hospital

Ronnie Hanley, marketing and client services coordinator at Ventana Animal Hospital, on 6686 E. Sunrise Drive in Tucson, said the clinic’s intention is to remind pet owners that vaccinations aren’t the most important care pets need.

“Just because your pet is vaccinated doesn’t mean there’s nothing internal that’s going on, like pancreatitis or liver failure,” Hanley said.

Education about diseases such as heartworm or valley fever, which is going around a lot recently, is key to pet health, Hanley said, adding that veterinarians can pick up on things internally that an owner can’t just by looking at their pets. In the first three weeks after the program started, about 20 clients signed up – most of them were already regular clients at the clinic, though the program did help the clinic gain a couple of new clients.

Because vaccines don’t cost much in the long run, the program isn’t expected to affect the clinic’s budget.

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