Three-centre Sussex practice celebrates 20 years in business - Veterinary Practice
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Three-centre Sussex practice celebrates 20 years in business

JOHN PERIAM visits a 10-veterinary surgeon practice in a rapidly developing area of West Sussex, which has IiP accreditation and aims to provide an integrated approach to pet healthcare

ALPHAPET is an independent group practice consisting of three surgeries serving an area of West Sussex including Chichester, Bognor Regis, Selsey, Bracklesham and the Witterings.

“Each surgery operates independently but cohesively to provide an integrated approach to veterinary healthcare,” says Richard Edwards, one of the partners.

AlphaPet was established in 1993 following the conversion of an old video shop at West Meads, Bognor Regis, and an old chicken shed at Birdham. Veterinary nurse Sandra Leatherdale (Richard’s wife) and vet Katie Rook made up the other two founding members.

Along the way they were joined by Doug Alexander who became a partner in June 1998, and Paul IrvineSmith who became the fourth partner in September 2004. Katie retired as a partner in April 2008 but is now back working on a part-time basis.

“The siting of our three clinics is very deliberate, allowing us to service a broad area around Bognor Regis at our West Meads surgery, Selsey and the Witterings at our Birdham surgery and Chichester and surrounding area at our Kingley surgery that was purchased in 2002,” says Richard. “We have grown to a 10-vet, threecentre practice and have achieved RCVS accreditation as well as the Investors in People Award, which we are very proud of.”

Richard qualified at Cambridge in 1989 and started working at a sole charge practice in Chichester with his wife, Sandra, where he built up a client base of over 2,500. In those days employment regulations were not as protective as they are now which resulted in an acrimonious parting of the ways.

Not deterred, he “got on his bike” to look for premises to set up his own practice. With some help from his parents, his own money, his wife’s support and linking up with Katie, they set up AlphaPet, doing all the redevelopment themselves. The day they opened the West Meads surgery (a Sunday) there was a queue of new clients outside, many of whom had followed Richard from Chichester. A week later, they opened the Birdham branch.

“These days, much has changed and we have to be a lot more business orientated in how we run the practice. Budgets have to be adhered to and updated on a regular basis,” says Richard.

“Prices have gone up with many of the drugs we use and we have to pass this onto our clients. We have to service our costs.

“Two members of our nursing staff live over the premises and are there to look after any overnight stays. We have an on-call vet and nurse rota to look after emergencies. Our clients take this all for granted. We are a nurse training practice with seven SVNs working under the guidance of our 10 qualified nursing staff.

“What is nice is that most homegrown VNs want to stay and many who leave to have families want to return part-time. My wife is the practice finance manager working from home most of the time to fit in with looking after our daughter.

“We are primarily general practitioners and although we can do most procedures and work-ups in house, we also regularly outsource to local referral specialists with whom we have built very good relationships.”

Doug also qualified at Cambridge (in 1985) while Paul qualified in South Africa (in 1999). “They say partnerships are like a marriage; and I genuinely believe that,” says Richard. “We are totally different people but that is what makes it work so well. Even though we may disagree on occasion, we respect each other and that means we can still make decisions on a constructive level.

Areas of responsibility

“We each have our own areas of partnership responsibilities. I look after health and safety, IT, website development, marketing, advertising and RCVS practice standards. Paul is responsible for human resources and Investors in People whilst Doug is the main man behind the finances.

“On the clinical side of things Paul is particularly good at diagnostics, especially ultrasound and radiography. I like wildlife and exotic medicine whilst Doug is a great allrounder with lots of surgical experience.

“With Katie back part-time, she does a lot of our more advanced surgery. We have also just taken on two new graduates, one from Cambridge (Claire Bounds) and one from London (Joanna Parker) who already seem to have gained a wealth of experience and are so much more competent than I ever was at their age!”

Technology is integral to the whole practice, underpinned by the ezVetPro practice management system. “We communicate with each other via e-mail and that means we have a record of everything. Our website is also very important to the practice, averaging over 300 visitors a day and we will very soon be able to offer clients the ability to book their own appointments online.

“Equipment needs to be looked at all the time and that is one of the advantages of new vets coming into the practice. They bring new ideas and perspectives which keep us advancing our equipment and facilities. We just upgraded our rigid endoscope at a cost of £2,000 as well as buying a new digital x-ray storage and viewing system.”

What about pet insurance? “We have become affiliated to and promote Vetsure Pet Insurance which meets our practice requirements. They don’t hype the premiums up as much as some other companies do and have several other advantages for our clients and us.

“We are certainly seeing more insured patients than we used to when we first started but, in recent times, we have also seen many clients who have cancelled their insurance only to find their pet then needs veterinary attention which they now have to finance.”

There is an excellent admin team at the practice who look after the many day-to-day issues that crop up. On-going refurbishment is important and the friendly reception area, which has a bright display of products clients can purchase, has just seen a new tiled floor laid.

With a lot of major property development planned for the region, the practice’s potential client base will only increase and, with that in mind, the future for expansion looks positive.

Richard added, “I have noticed an increase in people purchasing exotic pets perhaps thinking that they are not as expensive to keep as a dog or a cat. Sadly, this often is not the case and it is the animals that suffer and that is a challenge to us. Rabbits are also increasing and we are seeing more of what is now the third most popular pet in the country!”

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