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InFocus

The effects of corporate ownership on equine practice: the good, the bad and the ugly

Corporatisation of equine practice is a topic that divides the profession, with possible influences on work–life balance, client and job satisfaction, treatment costs and salaries

The Equine Veterinary Group (EVG) is a discussion group open to all veterinary surgeons working in the UK who are dealing, mainly or solely, with equine work. It was started by a friend and former colleague (one of my first bosses in equine practice, actually!), Mark Lucey, in 2007. EVG enables current topics that are specific to the UK equine veterinary community to be discussed between groups of like-minded professionals. Although I have to declare an interest, as I am now a co-owner of EVG along with Mark, most would agree that the group has allowed open, honest and respectful dialogue on a wide variety of topics. I know I join many of you in thanking Mark for his vision and enthusiasm in setting up the group.

Within the profession as a whole, there is no topic more important than the effects of ever-increasing corporate ownership. This has fuelled headlines in the mainstream press such as the one in the Financial Times on 20 April 2021, titled “Going to the vet: what happens when private equity invests in a cottage industry”. The article mainly featured the private equity-backed UK veterinary care company IVC Evidensia, and makes for interesting reading, as do the almost 200 comments on the article.

Within the more specialist veterinary press, there appears to be only one article to date which has looked in depth at the current situation. The 2020 article, “Consolidation in the veterinary profession”, was written by two French veterinarians, Philippe Baralon and Lucile Frayssinet, offering an overview of the current situation while also providing pointers for independent clinical owners. I would recommend it as a fascinating read to any of you with an interest in the issue of corporate ownership. Of course, this should really be all of us.

I found two of the key points of this article particularly interesting: firstly, that corporate groups will often pay a premium to purchase practices where they anticipate that a rapid and sustainable profit can be obtained; and, secondly, that independently owned veterinary practices can compete with corporate groups on most levels in terms of services offered.

Designing a survey

In view of the dearth of information on how the UK veterinary sector feels about a range of issues arising from the worldwide phenomenon of corporatisation within the profession, Mark and I were delighted when Callum Haseler approached us at the EVG earlier this year. Callum is a young enthusiastic vet pursuing a career in equine practice, and he wondered if we would be interested in designing a poll which looked specifically at equine vets’ attitudes and experiences of the explosive increase in corporate ownership within equine practice, and putting it to the members of the EVG.

The idea was to produce a questionnaire on the subject which was tailored specifically to equine vets with a particular emphasis on the experiences and expectations of any vets who have been through the process of corporate acquisition.

The questions included:

  • Do you view the increased corporate ownership of the equine profession as a positive or negative change?
  • Has your opinion changed after going through the process of acquisition by a corporate group?
  • How has your salary/workload/work–life balance/clinical freedom changed since change of practice ownership?
  • How has your job satisfaction changed since change of practice ownership?
  • How do you feel that client satisfaction/patient clinical outcomes have changed since change of practice ownership?
  • Would you recommend corporate ownership to other independent practices?

The survey ran on the EVG throughout the last week of April 2021, and the response was staggering. In total, 470 responses were obtained which is not only a very significant percentage of the total membership of EVG, but by far the biggest response to any previous EVG survey. I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of those who took part. It is only via surveys such as this that evidence-based opinion can be compiled and discussed. Of course, there is inevitably some comment that the questions could have been designed better, that they were too leading, and so on. However, the fact remains that the EVG has collected the largest amount of data on the subject of corporatisation among equine practices to date, so big thanks to Callum for getting the ball rolling!

Findings

Take-home conclusions from the data, which is available upon request, infer that this is a topic which divides the profession, but those who have been through a change to corporate ownership seem to have viewed it, on balance, as a positive change. However, there is the downside of some perceived reduced client satisfaction for one third of clients and increased treatment costs reported by almost half of respondents. For vets, work–life balance tended to improve, with an almost equal split between increased and decreased job satisfaction, and salary was more likely to be improved under corporate ownership.

There followed a healthy debate on the results, and I would encourage readers to go and search out the posts. It would be good to see the results presented in a forum such as BEVA Annual Congress at some stage as, hopefully, a robust consideration of the issues raised could ensue.

All in all, I think that EVG has usefully collected some pretty solid data to provide some factual, rather than anecdotal, evidence of what the situation truly is. Once again, a big thanks to Callum for coming up with the idea and to Mark for his continued work with the EVG.

Jonathan Pycock

PAST PRESIDENT, BEVA

Jonathan Pycock is an equine claims consultant for the Veterinary Defence Society and an equine reproduction expert. He is a past president of the British Equine Veterinary Association.


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