How do you ‘value’ an economic recession? - Veterinary Practice
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How do you ‘value’ an economic recession?

THE MERCURY COLUMN in which a guest columnist takes the temperature of the profession – and the world around

THE papers are full of gloom, the TV news is dire and, on occasion, the temptation to pull the duvet over one’s head and stay in bed for a month can be overwhelming.

Of course, human nature propels us along at an amazing speed because bad news is nearly always about someone else and, however altruistic our approach, murder and mayhem don’t really touch us as individuals.

So, despite whatever may be going on in the world, we continue to go about our business as if nothing has happened. In reality, of course, nothing has usually happened to affect us directly but it’s the indirect effect of distant happenings that can take us by surprise.

Until Christmas last year, how many of us had ever heard of subprime mortgages? Even the concept that lending money to impecunious American citizens was actually an established financial sector came as a shock to many of us.

Here, in the UK, people arrange mortgages – whatever they have to do, they do it – and we all cross our fingers that we’ll carry on working enough to meet the costs involved. Perhaps there’s a category of lending here that specialises in similar higherrisk mortgages but most of us had never been even vaguely aware of it until Northern Rock hit the headlines.

A reason to do nothing

Now, in roughly the same way that all financial institutions justify their intransigence by citing the Financial Services Authority as a legitimate reason to do nothing, loudly, the collapse of Northern Rock will continue to appear like one of the ugly sisters when you least expect it.

The Government may have saved the investors but a new code of financial caution has beset the country, rolling in like a sea mist that simply won’t go away.

Does it matter? Will it affect us? Yes, almost certainly. As Mervyn King, the Bank of England’s governor, put it, “Lenders intend to tighten conditions further this year. This tightening is unlikely to be shortlived.”

What King was really saying was that this will directly, and adversely, affect the standard of living for those residing in the UK. This will simply fuel the current trend of insecurity surrounding house prices and will accelerate an already rising rate of inflation. For most of us, fingers crossed as if we fear the return of the bogeyman, we’re simply holding our breath and hoping that unemployment rates do not increase to further damage the housing market.

In the meantime several things are happening. People are not buying houses, nor are they – mostly – buying new cars, or boats or caravans. Early bookings for summer holidays are down, except at the elite end of the market where cash is still king and sellers are doing expensive deals to shore up the slide lower down.

There are still people wandering into Tiffany, people buying Cristal champagne (a jeroboam of 1999 will set you back £1,475) and sales of Bentley are significantly improved. But this, as in so many other ways, reflects a widening gap in UK society and in people’s ability to pay for the things they want or need.

Unless one is disabled, it’s hard to say that any of us actually needs a dog but most of us find solace or even joy in the companionship of a pet dog or cat. What is apparent, though, is that the costs of owning a pet are increasing along with everything else. The Feline Advisory Bureau has just launched an excellent initiative – WellCat for life – and, at the launch meeting, showed statistics that confirmed the urban myth that around 50% of the nation’s cats may never see the vet in their lifetime.

Perhaps more worrying was the concern that, while approximately 10% of cat owners are so utterly committed that they will do everything that their vet asks, promptly and without question, a further 40% or so are well-intentioned but largely non-compliant because, as the FAB put it, “Life gets in the way.”

That must be a familiar thought for all of us. How often do we plan to do something but then shelve that plan at the last minute because “life gets in the way”? Doesn’t that apply to us just as much as it does to the clients who visit veterinary practices every day, in every town?

Inexorable fall

If so, how can we be surprised when the data, reflecting our business dynamics, show a steady and inexorable fall-off in the number of active clients per FTE. One doesn’t need to be Mervyn King to put two and two together to predict a further tightening in the numbers of people electing to come into veterinary surgeries when there is no apparent health reason to warrant the trip.

This will most likely be more accentuated in cats as cat owners are all too well aware of the inherent joys in trapping and transporting an unwilling cat to the vet. On occasion, one can turn a blind eye to life getting in the way, particularly if it avoids further financial drain, and we should expect this trend to increase unless we manage it directly.

The future doesn’t have to be gloomy but it does require the owners of practices to think creatively to encourage greater traffic through the door, at a time when money will be increasingly scarce for clients and more expensive for businesses.

The industry surrounding practice has come up with some excellent and timely initiatives – National Pet Month, National Flea Week, WellCat for life, to name but three. Let’s put 2008 down as the year when practices joined forces wholeheartedly with industry to bring about change.

We urgently need to change the way in which so many pet owners view their veterinary practices. We need to change the way in which people seek information about their pets and we need to change the passivity with which much of the profession approaches the future.

If money is tight and people elect to come to the practice less frequently, veterinary preventive care will become simply a commodity that pet owners can buy wherever it suits them and decreased frequency of visiting will become a habit.

Some creative thought and a collective burst of energy across the board might just make the difference between holding on to the profession’s ability to steer its own future course or finding that the options available to the profession have been further eroded through an increased degree of financial depression.

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