How much motivation do we need to do things differently? - Veterinary Practice
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How much motivation do we need to do things differently?

I WAS intrigued to see an advertisement in the veterinary press highlighting the word “motivation” and asking if the readers still feel as inspired as when they graduated.

While offering up my congratulations to the corporate practice concerned for an excellent advertising campaign, I started to think more about that very word – motivation.

None of us is unfamiliar with the term but I suspect that it means different things to different people. For some, it may be associated with a drive to succeed – perhaps in business, perhaps within a company – while for others it may involve some soul-searching and a need for greater fulfilment in either a physical or more spiritual sense. In all cases, it will involve harnessing an inner energy to secure an incentive or an inducement of some kind.

Perhaps that’s where we may be going off the rails a bit in small animal practice. I could be wrong about this but not the bit about going off the rails. Reading the veterinary press or while attending BSAVA’s recent congress it wasn’t possible to avoid some written or spoken dissertation on how the indicative parameters of small animal practice success were pointing downhill in a quite alarming way.

Times are difficult

We all realise that, economically, times are difficult but one could be forgiven for thinking that this doesn’t apply to veterinary practice. So many practitioners were non-committal but I did talk to a number of the best-known names and, without exception, they all admitted that it’s not all plain sailing.

So, unless we assume that the best-known names have the riskiest businesses, we might reasonably assume that if it’s tricky out there for them, it is tricky out there for most of us.

To be fair, outside agencies and countless veterinary observers have been telling us this for ages. We heard from Onswitch, way back in 2005, that 20% of our favoured clients were using more than one practice and the Fort Dodge Indices have been showing an inexorable decline in footfall, shown through the actual numbers of active clients/FTE, ever since 2002, but perhaps we thought, just as I do if I’m speeding, that these figures are meant for someone else rather than me.

It’s a natural thing to think that the rules are made for someone else and we never think it’s going to be ourselves who will be caught, but tell that to the accident victims and they will say, to a man or woman, that they never thought it would be them either.

So where’s the motivation in that? In reality, unless we change the way we do business with the pet-owning client, some of us will not be in business at all. Perhaps survival is the ultimate inducement to change behaviour and it is clear to anyone analysing the dynamics of veterinary practice that a significant change in behaviour is needed – soon.

The number of active patients/FTE has continued to fall from 1,586 in December 2008 to 1,453 some two years later. To make these figures more telling, that figure was 1,825 in 2001.

There is no more puissant factor in business success than having an increasing pool of active patients and here we have the diametric opposite, yet we seem to be paralysed by inertia like rabbits in the headlights.

If we can stir ourselves sufficiently to decide on a course of action that will, in itself, prove to be a much-needed catalyst for changing behaviour. Some have already done so and are reaping the benefits of having made the change but clearly others will leave it far too late unless they are somehow motivated to change.

It might be useful to take a look at our clients’ motivation. What motivates our clients to take action on their pets’ behalf? For some, it is their sense of responsibility for the health and well-being of their pet while, for others, it may be more influenced by financial considerations.

Shrinking income

We will all be aware that for the vast majority of families, disposable income has already shrunk and will continue to do so if interest rates rise and mortgage payments and rents increase as a result.

Ten years ago, £40 worth of diesel would take you to Bratislava; now it will barely get you down to the shops and back and this, accompanied by increases in the costs of many staples of modern life, will severely reduce the disposable cash available for non-urgent pet health activities in the vast majority of families.

One thing strikes me as being amazing. We all know that the dog population numbers have been declining while the numbers of cats have been growing. In 2001, when there were more dogs than cats, the split of veterinary transactions dogs v. cats was 56:36.

Ten years later, when we have far more cats, more people living alone and a societal environment which favours cat ownership over dog ownership, the split has become 66:30. Let’s ask ourselves why:

  • Is it because we have more dogs? No.
  • Does society favour dog ownership more now, a decade later? No.
  • Do cat owners value their cats more now? Probably.
  • Are there more cats now? Yes, lots.
  • Are cat owners more willing in 2011 to spend more on their cats than before? Yes.
  • Are cat owners spending more money in the practice nowadays? Clearly not.

So, if we have a rapid decline in the number of patients attending and if cats are not properly represented in practice turnover, according to their population size and the capacity of their owners to pay, there is obviously a clear disconnect here.

If you talk to the ISFM (International Society of Feline Medicine), they will tell you the unpalatable truth that so many cat owners feel let down by the same veterinary practices that were ever so willing to see the cat, charge a consult fee, prescribe a course of medication and then wash their hands of the cat owner and the patient as soon as they’d paid the bill, leaving the cat owner still with a sick cat, a hefty bill and a kitchen drawer full of feline medications that they simply cannot get into the cat.

Will they come back to try again? Not likely; would you?

These consumers are faced with a choice of returning to the practice embarrassed and indignant or going to Pets at Home, so is it any surprise that the performance of the “pet £” in the pet retail sector is several times better than it is in the veterinary sector. Is it really a surprise that active patient numbers are continuing to fall in our veterinary world?

The big surprise must surely be that this profession, which continues to harness the very best academic brains amongst the nation’s school leavers, is so unwilling to adopt change and to find a different path.

It’s not that we can’t, so it can only be that we won’t consider doing it differently – an observation for which the directors and shareholders of the pet retailing giants are incalculably grateful.

One can only wonder how much motivation it will take to change our professional behaviour – and when is being a late adopter simply too late?

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