Don’t Kick Preventive Care to the Curb: Help Your Clients Understand the Importance of Preventive Care During Tough Economic Times

Veterinarians understand the importance of routine care: how it saves animals’ lives, prevents unnecessary suffering, and is cost-effective. But how do you convince clients of these benefits during tough economic times? Conveying the importance of preventive care to clients is critical.

“Regardless of the financial times, our patients need us, and our clients need us to help them understand what those patient needs are. It is a time to be flexible and creative as we navigate these uncertain times.”
—Robin Downing, DVM, MS, DAAPM,
DACVSMR, CVPP, CCRP

by Paula Fitzsimmons

Economic slowdowns put many of us on edge. People are preoccupied, living with uncertainty, and may be experiencing financial hardship. For pet parents, this may mean less money—or less desire to spend money—on things like preventive veterinary care.

As a veterinarian, you understand the importance of routine care, how it saves animal lives, prevents unnecessary suffering, and is cost effective. But how do you convince your clients of these benefits? This article is designed to help you effectively explain to your clients that keeping appointments serves their (and their pets’) best interests.

Key Benefits of Preventive Care to Convey to Clients

When clients understand the importance of maintaining consistent veterinary care (even during challenging times), they may be more inclined to keep their appointments. Here are three key benefits to consider discussing with your clients.

Key Benefit: Early Detection

Information gathered during a veterinary office visits, such as weight changes, pulse and respiration, teeth and periodontal disease status, and feet and nail conditions, as well as blood and fecal exams, can’t be duplicated at a client’s home, said Jerry Klein, DVM, chief veterinary officer for the American Kennel Club (AKC).

These data points provide important information about the health of a pet and can be used to detect early signs of any conditions that could develop.

“The earlier a condition is detected, the better the chance there is for a more efficient treatment or cure that will not only save money but possibly the pet’s life,” Klein said.

Key Benefit: Disease Prevention

Keeping up with vaccinations prevents infectious diseases, reminds Robin Downing, DVM, MS, DAAPM, DACVSMR, CVPP, CCRP, hospital director of AAHA-accredited Downing Center for Animal Pain Management in Windsor, Colorado.

“It is critical to appreciate that the diseases against which we vaccinate are generally either fatal or cause serious illness demanding very aggressive, invasive, and expensive care, and with an uncertain outcome,” she said.

Key Benefit: Keeping Clients Healthy

Preventing disease in pets also protects humans. For example, some parasites—which can be detected via a fecal exam, for example—may be contagious to people, says Klein.

“This is especially concerning to families with children and the immunocompromised. Finally, although being currently vaccinated for many diseases is not mandatory, rabies vaccines are mandatory in all states. If your pet happens to bite someone and is not currently vaccinated for rabies, your pet may need to be quarantined, which could be costly and have legal consequences,” he said.

Communicating Effectively with Clients During Challenging Times

The way you communicate your message is as important as the message itself, especially at a time when people are facing adversity.

The good news is that clients want to know what you think. “All of the compliance studies that have been done to date in veterinary medicine demonstrate that pet owners want the veterinary healthcare team to partner with them in the best interest of the pet. They actively want our help to know what is best, and what should be done to keep their pets healthy and happy. We are the experts, and we need to act like experts,” said Downing.

Here are a few tips for having productive conversations about preventive care.

“The earlier a condition is detected, the better the chance there is for a more efficient treatment or cure that will not only save money but possibly the pet’s life.””
—Jerry Klein, DVM

Customize Your Messaging

Patrick Mahaney, VMD, CVA, CVJ, owner of California Pet Acupuncture and Wellness in Los Angeles, sends individualized emails to his clients to remind them of services their pets need, with offers to set up appointments.

“I think taking a personalized approach is better than some computer-generated letter,” Mahaney said. “Especially now that everyone’s on edge, people want to have that personalized connection. Or a phone call or text message is good, too.”

Focus on Your Clients’ Needs

Engage your clients by allowing them to tell you their story.

“What are their concerns? Ask open-ended questions,” Downing says. “One of the best ways to draw people out is simply to say, Tell me more. Be transparent in your desire to partner with the client to help them [understand] with greater clarity just what the pet needs and deserves.”

By keeping the focus on the patient, she says, there is less risk that discussions will be perceived as sales pitches.

Use This Time to Educate Clients

Education helps establish goodwill and provides an important service. For example, use social media, your blog, or your newsletter to publish educational articles about the importance of veterinary exams, offers Meg Oliver, CVPM, of Cicero Animal Clinic in Brewerton, New York.

“Since most clients don’t even know what an exam entails, you can make a simple post about what it involves. Perhaps a computer-savvy member of your team could make a YouTube video of an actual exam taking place in your clinic to share. Make it fun and people will watch. If you have TVs in your exam rooms, use PowerPoint presentations with these videos to entertain and educate as clients wait.”

Is This a Good Time to Consider Pet Wellness Plans?

Whereas pet insurance covers illnesses and emergencies, the focus of pet wellness plans (PWPs) is disease prevention. Clients pay into the plan monthly and are reimbursed when they take the pet in for a preventive service. Coverage varies by plan but usually includes routine visits, vaccinations, flea and tick prevention, heartworm testing, and microchipping.

Proponents says PWPs encourage more visits, which can potentially prevent more serious health problems from occurring. “Many owners want to be able to provide the highest level of care for their pets, but it is unrealistic for them to pay a lump sum once or twice a year. Offering wellness plans that allow automatic charges on a monthly basis gives these clients the opportunity to provide the level of care they want at a budgeted amount each month,” explained Oliver.

Veterinary hospitals have the option of creating an in-house PWP or working through a pet insurance company.

In-House PWPs

Cicero Animal Clinic has offered monthly adult wellness plans since 2013 and puppy and kitten wellness plans since 2014. Both were set up and are maintained in-house with their practice management software.

All plans include unlimited exams for the length of the term, whichever vaccines are due that year, a full comprehensive screening bloodwork panel, a fecal exam, and urinalysis. Clients can also choose to upgrade their level of services (adult plans are available in Bronze, Silver, and Gold, and puppy and kitten plans in Silver and Gold). For example, in addition to the foregoing services, adult Silver plans include a “year of flea, tick, and heartworm prevention. Gold plans include these preventives as well as a dental, minus extractions, which would be paid at the time of the dentistry as needed,” Oliver explained.

Third-Party PWPs

If you have a few pet insurance companies you trust, ask if they offer PWPs (not all do). Embrace Pet Insurance, for example, offers Wellness Rewards, a routine care plan that can be added to any accident and illness policy. “It allows pet parents to spend their yearly allotment as they please on routine veterinary, grooming, and training expenses with no per-item limits. Wellness Rewards works as a budgeting tool and the funds are available to pet parents the day they sign up,” said Scott Waldon, a business development representative with Embrace.

First Steps to Creating a PWP

Decide whether you want to create an in-house PWP or work through a pet insurance agency.

“You need to decide what control you want to be able to have over these plans when it comes to customizing and changing, as well as the cost to your clinic,” said Oliver. “For some, it may be less expensive to pay your staff to maintain it in-house rather than incur fees from a company. For others, they may prefer to not handle the payment aspect or not have the ability to do monthly billing, and will gladly pay a company for that.”

A personalized PWP can be beneficial to your practice, but it will require oversight and management, says Waldon. “Weigh the financial benefits against the time and management needed. If the math doesn’t work out the way you’d like, consider promoting a third-party wellness program, such as Wellness Rewards, to encourage clients to keep up with wellness care.”

Because PWPs are not attractive to everyone, it’s helpful to have a good understanding of your client base. “It does not appeal to older generations who were raised with the concept of ‘If you don’t have the money at the moment, you don’t buy it.’ Those folks, who make every effort to not pay interest to save money in the long run, are not usually interested in wellness plans,” said Oliver.

“I think taking a personalized approach is better than some computer-generated letter. Especially now that everyone’s on edge, people want to have that personalized connection.”
—Patrick Mahaney, VMD, CVA, CVJ

Should You Discount Your Services?

Some hospitals offer coupons and other types of discounts to generate business, but some veterinarians say it’s not economically feasible. “In 34 years of practice ownership, I have never offered coupons or discounts. The economics of discounts never actually benefit practices in the long term,” said Downing.

Be cautious of doing anything that could be perceived as devaluing your staff, says Susan O’Bell, DVM, MPH, DACVIM, director of general medicine practice at MSPCA Angell Animal Medical Center in the Boston area.

“In these more challenging times, though, I have been more direct and upfront about costs and benefits of performing tests now versus later in case that helps them with their overall budgeting.” O’Bell said.

The AKC’s Klein says that veterinarian-generated coupons tend to cause an expectation of lower pricing at all times.

“This can diminish the willingness of clients to pay full price for services rendered,” Klein said. “Client expectations are different in every community.” He adds that veterinary hospitals might also consider consulting with a marketing professional.

Other Incentive Options to Consider

This doesn’t mean that offering incentives has to be completely off-limits. The following are some ideas for establishing goodwill with your own clients.
Cicero Animal Hospital offers a $5 thank-you coupon (the only coupon they offer) for referring clients, says Oliver. “The majority of clients use this [to buy] a toy for their pet at their next visit.”

MSPCA Angell also offers referral discounts. “And perhaps even more helpfully, free shipping on preventive medications ordered from the hospital. It saves clients a trip to the hospital and keeps medication purchases in-house,” said O’Bell.

The AKC Veterinary Network is a new (and free) program that distributes certificates to recent AKC registrants that they can redeem at registered hospitals for a complimentary first visit. “By providing a complimentary first office visit to the owner of an AKC-registered dog, you have the opportunity to meet and develop a lifelong professional relationship with a loyal and conscientious client,” said Klein.

The veterinary profession has weathered difficult economic times in the past and will experience them again in the future, reminds Downing.

“Regardless of the financial times, our patients need us, and our clients need us to help them understand what those patient needs are,” Downing said. “It is a time to be flexible and creative as we navigate these uncertain times. But that’s what veterinarians do. We think outside the box, and we reinvent how we do the things we do to adapt to the times at hand. No one knows how the current crisis will come to resolution, but we are essential, so hang in there.”

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AAHA Pet Wellness Plans

In addition to creating an in-house wellness plan or working with a pet insurance company, AAHA-accredited practices can also take advantage of AAHA Pet Wellness Plans.

The AAHA Pet Wellness Plans program, developed for AAHA-accredited practices in partnership with financial services company VCP, is similar to other PWPs in that it is designed to give clients access to key preventive care services throughout the year, requiring a monthly payment.

The customizable program, introduced in 2018, includes a wellness coach and ongoing support.

For more information, visit vcp.vet/aaha.

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Paula Fitzsimmons is a journalist and content marketing writer who specializes in companion animals as they intersect with topics related to health, nutrition, technology, and finance. She has a strong interest in crafting content that will inspire and help pet parents make informed decisions. Her work has appeared in PetMD, Happy Paws magazine, Great Pet Care, Prevention magazine, PetCoach, and many others.

Photo credits: LuckyBusiness/iStock/Getty Images Plus, ©AAHA/Robin Taylor, DenGuy/E+/Getty Images

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