The Ghost of Christmas Past - Veterinary Practice
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The Ghost of Christmas Past

SHARON WESSELBY urges practices to consider changing the way things are done

DESPITE the fact that Christmas
arrives at the same time every year,
I’m always caught by surprise. I’m
often found creeping stealthily to my
neighbour’s door on Christmas Eve
in an attempt to ensure their card
arrives before the stroke of

Perhaps I try to
cram too much into
the time available; or
maybe I put off the
things I really should
be doing until crisis
point slams home and
I can procrastinate no
longer – perhaps I’m
not the only one?!

For some time
now various veterinary
performance analyses
have indicated that all
is not well with the
profession; some
pointers should come as no surprise
whilst others should now be ringing
alarm bells.

Both MAI and FDI indicate clients
and consultations per full-time
veterinary surgeon are down and have
been for the last two years. Probably
understandable as we now have almost
double the number of practices we had
10 years ago and three times the
number of practising veterinary
surgeons of 30 years ago.

There are 40% more students
graduating with a veterinary degree
today than there were in 1997 and the
number who remained unemployed six
months post-graduation doubled in
2008 compared to 2007.

Cat and dog ownership, however,
appears to have remained fairly static at
about 24 million. Numbers of small
furries engaging young children in pet
ownership for the first time are on the
increase.3 Practising vets now appear to
have outstripped pet numbers, resulting
in an oversupply – even accounting for
working time directive restrictions
(Figure 1).

What concerns me, though, is the
decrease in client visit frequency and the
uptake of traditional veterinary products
and services.

Comparing 2009 with 2008
performance, everything from
vaccinations to neutering appears to be down except for microchipping,
according to the latest Fort Dodge
indices (Figure 2).

Not wishing to be the harbinger of
gloom, but in the words of the song,
“There may be (even more) trouble
ahead”, you could be forgiven for
thinking that the manifestations of the Competition
Commission enquiry
in 2005 were well and
truly behind us; sadly
you would be wrong.

The VMD is
currently assessing the
potential to re-classify
70-plus POM-V
licensed products to
POM-VPS or lower.
The main therapeutic
areas under
consideration are ecto-,
endo- and endectoparasiticides and vaccines.

According to figures released by the National Office of Animal Health, the
parasiticides alone accounted for 35%
of UK animal medicine sales at net
prices in 2008.5 Parasiticides dispensed
for companion animals contributed to
just under 90% of this, equivalent to
approximately £150 million of product

At 50% product margins, around
£75,000 in turnover per practice could
be lost to non-veterinary outlets. Are
you ready for the changes this could
mean for you?

Clients are already looking elsewhere
for pet products and services and
alternative outlets are welcoming them
with open arms for both direct and
indirect sales (Figure 3).

Large consumer outlets are showing
strong growth, with just two sectors,
local pet stores and veterinary practice,
declining in a growing market,3 and this
is not just pet food and toys either.

More than 20% of pet owners had
purchased pet care (that includes
medicines) from Pets at Home, Tesco
and Asda.3 All these outlets are now well
placed to pick up POM-VPSs. Tesco
now has 300 sites with in-store
pharmacies, Sainsbury has 235 – all now
stock pet medicines. Boots Alliance has
over 2,000 branches and again has the
opportunity to stock and sell pet
medicines. Compared to veterinary
practices, the numbers for these outlets
may not seem that great; but if you
factor in the number of daily visits each
receives from pet owners, this changes
the picture significantly.

Internet and mail order are currently
used by less than 1% of pet owners for
purchasing products3 but this too is set
to change. Almost 70% of us now have
access to the internet with 90% doing so via broadband.6
numbers of on-line
pharmacies with
fast, no charge
deliveries are
popular particularly
with the “silver
surfers” who have
the time and the
commitment to
find alternative
suppliers for what
they see as
standard purchases.

There are now
over 20,000 alternative outlets
all competing for
your business
(Figure 4).

It is true that
there are some aspects of
veterinary practice
that they can’t take;
but it is also true
that you may still
be relying on those
they can to support
your core services.
With increasing
negative press
coverage on
practices that “rip
off ” clients, there
has never been a
better time to
make your
difference count; but a careful route to
avoid the potential pitfalls must be
mapped to do so successfully and in a
way that is right for you and your

Perhaps in the style of the Ghost of
Christmas Past we can now begin to see
the necessity of changing the way we do
things in practice, and as you saw in the
new year with glass in hand I hope you
considered, or will find time now to
consider, what changes you will need to make to focus on the Ghost of Practice
yet to come!


  1. RCVS Surveys and Statistics.
  2. Higher Education Statistics Agency.
  3. Mintel Pet Food and Pet Care Retailing
    Report 2008.
  4. Fort Dodge Index September 2009.
  5. National Office for Animal Health Facts
    and Figures, July 2009.
  6. National Office of Statistics Bulletin,
    August 2009.

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