Time for us to ask questions of our own... - Veterinary Practice
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Time for us to ask questions of our own…

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

THERE are those who might exhort many of today’s school-leavers to eschew the idea of going to university and to seek a meaningful apprenticeship instead, thus ensuring viable future employment and saving themselves and their families many years of financial commitment.

Anyone who has recently tried to secure the services of an electrician or a plumber might well see the pragmatism in such advice.

Over the last two decades, successive governments have found it necessary to bring the professions into line with Europe’s obsession with egalitarianism and, without doubt, being a lawyer, a pharmacist or a teacher is very different today from the way it would have been 10 years ago.

To some extent, the UK veterinary profession could be said to have got off lightly, in terms of governmental interference, although it rarely feels that way.

A little different

Our situation here is, perhaps, a little different from that in most of Europe in that farm animal work is strictly business-to-business for those practices engaged specifically in this field whereas, in much of Europe, there are more practices doing mixed animal work with lower overall percentages involved specifically with small animal or with farm animal business.

Few of us, however, have forgotten the shock waves caused by the not altogether constructive interest shown by the Competition Commission some years ago.

What might be more helpful would be for governments to work with the professions, helping them to plan to provide the services needed in years to come. No other body, other than at government level, can possibly have the level of overview required to make proper provision for the future and one could easily forgive individual practitioners for being somewhat perplexed about the future, both for themselves and their businesses.

The government fully understands that the profession is trying to run a series of businesses to provide veterinary services for the future, which is why it insisted on allowing market forces to orchestrate the future – once it had re-jigged the playing field to have a helpful slope near the goalposts which it had so carefully moved.

What isn’t, apparently, forthcoming is any sense of sharing the crystal ball with which the electorate has entrusted them.

On the one hand, it is clear to anyone who cares to look that veterinary footfall in small animal practice remains in decline and that, after their helpful intervention in Round 1, product sales for preventive care are now far more widely available to consumers than had previously been the case.

Market forces

The government was rather keen on playing the “market forces” card in this context, stressing that a wider availability of such products would broaden the purchasing curve and would better serve the nation’s pets.

However, within the profession, we are also broadening access to such products and services and we now have far more practices in the UK than 20 years ago and are progressing gung-ho towards training many more veterinary graduates, despite a very small farm animal sector within the profession, a diminishing demand for small animal services and a static demand for small animal products through the vet.

Blind insistence

We cannot blame market forces for our blind insistence on gathering more undergraduates into our net, particularly when the bigger, long distance forecast would suggest that we may have this one rather horribly wrong.

Statisticians might argue that the UK data we have are skewed and simply represent the limited group of practices involved in buying services or products through the companies which collate the data but, when compared with the rest of Europe, the data we have are solid, consistent and reproducible for much of their history by more than one collator.

Clearly, it is of far more use than the piecemeal data which exist in only some European countries but the parlous state of market data collection across Europe only goes to highlight the need for the profession to stop relying on outside forces and to start the process of better understanding its own future by taking responsibility for collecting meaningful data of its own.

In April, the AVMA released data, collected within the US, estimating the excess capacity of veterinary services within the country. The study was carried out in 2012 by independent researchers acting for the association and indicates that, with a US complement of 90,200 veterinarians, the supply exceeded demand for veterinary services by around 11,250 FTE veterinarians – or approximately 12.5%.

While this doesn’t mean that there were 11,000 unemployed veterinarians in the US during 2012, it does suggest that market demand for veterinary services was 12.5% lower in that period than the full veterinary capacity to service the demand.

Here, we are back to market forces again and simple economics tells us that either the US profession needs to stimulate a significant uplift in demand for its services or it needs to reduce its workforce by a similar level.

Similar pattern

One comment coming from the analysis of this study was that the researchers couldn’t quantify why some practices were working flat out and were clearly successful while others were far from busy.

Much the same could be said here in the UK where, talking to colleagues at the BSAVA congress, it was clear that a similar pattern was emerging but with little evident understanding of what made the difference between a successful and an ailing practice.

The answer is almost certainly complex but an evident shortcut would be to look at – guess what? – market forces. Consumers are fickle creatures but their habits are relatively easy to spot and they are rarely reluctant to talk about themselves.

In the absence of our veterinary associations getting involved in acquiring and sharing key data, why not take the simple route and ask the pet owners who use our services what they like and what they dislike about our individual market offerings? The cost will be minimal and the results could be immense.

The AVMA was keen to stress that this was not a final answer and, in fact, the survey marked the beginning of a voyage of discovery.

All praise then to the AVMA but while we’re collectively holding our breath in the UK, let’s take matters into our own hands for once and ask some questions of our own.

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