Mar
4
2009

If your practice is seeing a drop-off in routine visits from clients, you are not alone. Practices from across the country report that routine care such as wellness exams and vaccinations seem to be declining due to the economy.

Practices that are seeing this phenomenon are coping with it in different ways, but some common threads are staff training, client education and making sure clients feel that the hospital’s services are valuable.

Western woes
One practice in the Western part of the country reported that the economy is pushing the limits of not only client’s wallets, but even the human-animal bond.

“We find that the human-animal bond is still there, but is being stressed, and sometimes broken, when owners are making strategic decisions to delay some things for themselves as well as their children and pets,” said Gregg Takashima, DVM, of Parkway Veterinary Hospital in Lake Oswego, Ore.

“We are seeing elective procedures such as wellness exams, dentistries, preventative blood screens and even some problem issues being put off or declined for now,” he said. “We do not have any hard numbers, but feel we may be seeing cases that are a bit more serious due the reluctance of some owners to come in until things become critical.” 

Takashima said he is stressing several things: keeping the staff informed on hospital decisions; emphasizing compliance and client education; and engaging the staff by asking them for ideas on efficiency and how to practice better medicine.

Budget-wise, the practice has initiated a hiring freeze, is minimizing large purchases and is delaying major equipment purchases. But Takashima said he has not reduced staff-related expenses.

“[We] continue to try and demonstrate the value staff has to the business,” he said. “For instance, we have not cut back on our budget for staff CE and travel, staff meetings, and benefits.”

Midwest unrest
Robert Fox, DVM, of Fox Animal Hospital in Evanston, Ill., says while his practice is in a “pretty stable” economic area of the Midwest, he is still seeing similar, though less pronounced effects.

“We have a small percentage of clients that are coming in anywhere from 1-4 months overdue for their annual exam, but nonetheless do come in eventually,” Fox said. “If the rabies vaccination is due, they are more prompt. We have not had any drop off in acceptance of wellness testing, but have had some routine procedures put on hold for a few months due to the economy Im sure.”

Southern discomfort
Heartland Veterinary Hospital Medical Director Will Flanagan, DVM, said his practice in Elizabethtown, Ky., has seen a decline in wellness and ancillary services. Flanagan said his philosophy is to stick to the basics.

“It sounds very basic, but being very thorough in the exam room and the education of clients in the importance of certain health care concerns is the key in providing the very best care that the pet and client deserves,” Flanagan said. “As far as trends go, the national economy will likely get worse before it gets better; so in the meantime we all just need to remember that providing the most top-notch service to our patients and clients is why we are all here, and as long as we keep this central premise in mind, we should be positioned to outlast this economic storm.”

East coast blues
In the East, James Miele, DVM, of Princeton Animal Hospital in Princeton, N.J., said he is seeing a definite downturn, and was down 7 percent in January compared with last year.

“What we are seeing is people are less motivated to do some wellness recommendations and also less able to handle some medical workups,” Miele said. “Also, our in-clinic traffic is less. We recommend a wellness blood profile every year for ones pet. This has definitely fallen off. One last thing, people are complaining more about the price.”

Nonetheless, Miele said he does not blame “the economy.” Instead, he stresses a “whatever-it-takes” attitude with the veterinarians and staff in the 11-doctor practice.

“We are working hard at ‘adding value’ to everything we do: Increase client communications, handouts, consistent follow through, taking more time to give detailed explanations. We have also increased hours,” Miele said.

The practice is being more flexible with payment options, is now on call 24 hours a day, and has started advertising the extended hours in the local paper. The strategy seems to be working, at least last month. Miele said although he was down in January, his February numbers were up 10 percent.

“I hope this will be a trend,” he said.

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