The future of curbside

Even in a postpandemic world, will we ever kick curbside to the curb?

“The majority of folks I've spoken to are eager to eliminate curbside as soon as they can,” said veterinary consultant Josh Vaisman, CCFP, MAPPCP (PgD).

Vaisman, cofounder and lead consultant at Flourish Veterinary Consulting in Boulder, Colorado, told NEWStat that most hospitals are clamoring for in-hospital visits to resume—and so are pet owners. And while some hospitals he’s talked to like the curbside model, he said they seem to be in the minority.

Citing various challenges—including inclement weather and unhappy clients—Vaisman said, “It seems that curbside, for most hospitals, will be a thing of the past as soon as possible.”

But not for all hospitals.

Vaisman points out that while many may think of curbside as a new phenomenon borne of necessity during the pandemic, it’s actually been around for a while: “For many hospitals, a version of curbside has always existed” in the form of clients dropping off patients for the day for various reasons.

Pam Nichols, DVM, owner of AAHA-accredited Animal Care Daybreak in South Jordan, Utah, and president on the AAHA Board of Directors, built her first practice on drop-off-only service. “I was a single mom and I told my clients that I would happily fit them in but they just had to trust me and I would do my level best to get them seen in a reasonable amount of time,” she said. “That was 20 years ago.”

Nichols told NEWStat that the only reason she didn’t offer curbside when she opened her new hospital in December of 2019 was resistance from her staff veterinarians, who didn’t think they could develop relationships with clients on a drop-off basis.

But there was a big paradigm shift when the pandemic broke.

Nichols said her staff negotiated that shift nimbly: “My doctors all now love the drop-off model,” she said. So do her clients: “They trust us [and] they don’t need to watch us hold their pet. They can [run] errands; they can do anything they want or need to do.”

Nichols emphasizes that, with curbside, as with all care, “You still have to create the relationship.”

She concedes that can be easier said than done, but believes it’s very much a learned skill: “It’s fascinating to watch my team learn how to navigate relationships when they don’t have a ton of face-to-face time,” Nichols said. “I find myself giving lots of coaching about [how to demonstrate] compassion and empathy and caring in a very short amount of time. It’s all about creating a relationship with limited time in a way that [makes] clients feel safe and cared for [when] leaving their pet with [us].”

Regardless, Nichols thinks curbside is here to stay. David Hawkins, owner and practice manager at AAHA-accredited Dogwood Pet Hospital in Gresham, Oregon, isn’t so sure.

Hawkins said his clients are increasingly reluctant to drop off their pets. “First, it means two trips—one to drop off, and one to pick up.” And a lot of clients don’t have that kind of time.

As someone who’s been working in veterinary hospitals for 30 years, Hawkins has seen a few changes in the way clients juggle veterinary appointments with the demands of their jobs, and calls the concept of flextime a gamechanger: “That was unheard of in the 1970s and 1980s,” he said. If you’d asked for time off work to take your dog to the veterinarian in those days, “Your boss would have laughed in your face.”

Hawkins says the pets-as-family factor plays a big part in client reluctance to continue with curbside appointments—clients want to be in the room and face to face with their pet’s veterinarian. “It isn’t that the client distrusts us, so much as they’re slow to trust anyone with their pets.”

Another big problem with curbside? His team members aren’t big fans.

“My team loves and hates curbside service,” he said, echoing the sentiments expressed at many hospitals. “It’s less efficient and we spend more time coordinating with each other and the clients.” (Even more so when inclement weather and unhappy clients are in the mix.)

And Hawkins makes another interesting point, one that comes up less often when veterinary team members discuss the pros and cons of curbside: “We’re a group of introverts,” he said. “We’re happier not having to make small talk with clients.”

That said, Hawkins doesn’t think most of his clients will want to opt for curbside postpandemic: “They want inside, and if they can’t come in, they want to wait just outside.”

Some hospitals are already preparing for that possibility—especially hospitals planning to renovate, according to architect Heather Lewis, AIA, NCARB. Lewis is a partner at Animal Arts, a Boulder, Colorado–based architecture firm that specializes in designing veterinary hospitals and animal shelters. She said the pandemic taught us to think with a flexible mindset: “Not all operational changes we had to make in veterinary practices during the past year were bad, and curbside is no exception.”

Keeping curbside as an option is an example of that flexible thinking. “Sometimes curbside is helpful,” Lewis notes, such as drop-offs for surgical and dental procedures to prevent clogging up a lobby first thing in the morning. 

Lewis said that many Animal Arts clients are providing curbside options for limited services that don’t require that clients enter the building, such as medication pickups. “The key to doing this is to ensure that it’s reasonably simple.”

The simplest option? Designate a few parking spots for curbside, and make sure there’s a direct and easy path to the building. To that end, Lewis said some of their clients are converting their dedicated curbside spots into covered parking, “so clients can more comfortably wait in the car.” Additional outdoor seating is another popular option.

But as far as new construction goes, Lewis said, “If curbside doesn’t work for you, don’t do it.” However, she advised keeping in mind those occasions when it helps to have clients stay out of the building. In those cases, incorporating curbside as a longer-term option in any remodel plans might be a smart move. 

Plus, you never know when the paradigm might shift again.

Photo credit: © Svitlana Hulko/iStock/Getty Images Plus via Getty images