Covetrus recently asked a number of industry experts for their opinions regarding the challenges and opportunities that our industry currently faces. Among these experts, they have included Independent Vets of Australia director, Dr Mark Ethell.
EXPERT OPINION: LARGEST CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR THE VETERINARY INDUSTRY
With so much change across the veterinary industry over the past year, it’s important to recognise some of the key areas we can improve on and also look to harness moving forward. We’ve reached out to several industry experts to get their personal take on what are the largest challenges and opportunities at present and into the future.
Biggest Challenge – One of our biggest challenges is coping with the burnout of vets and nurses caused by the stresses and strains of the last year. Many colleagues have worked long, hard hours with an increasing patient list and inefficient methods of working. Social distancing and bubbles have meant that the camaraderie normally present in practices may have been lacking and there has been the worry of catching the virus. My concern is that when the restrictions finally come to an end, there will be a lot of very mentally and physically tired colleagues who will need a proper period to recuperate and re-energise. That’s why I’m so passionate about getting involved in the recruitment business, using cool digital tools to ease the strain of how little resources we all have. Events like Brexit mean we have potentially less talent and fewer foreign vets – this is something we need to manage.
Biggest Opportunity – One of the biggest opportunities for veterinary practice and the industry is to carry on with digital transformation. I’ve been encouraging the industry to remember that all businesses should be digital businesses for several years with limited success. We are a conservative profession. The coronavirus has been much better at persuading the industry than I was. However, I think the digital transformation of the last 18 months must continue. It’s so important that we continue to use digital tools to help us with booking appointments, holding online consults, ordering stock, sending out reminders and, of course, keeping ourselves clinically up-to-date. Those businesses who continue to think as digital businesses will be the ones who are successful. The general public will expect to engage with practices in a digital manner having transformed themselves over the last 18 months.
Biggest Challenge – In my opinion, the greatest challenge is ensuring that we have a sufficient number of veterinary professionals to deliver veterinary care to our community. Balancing the needs of the team to ensure that they have a sustainable and satisfying environment in which to work, with the needs and expectations of the community is a challenge that veterinary leaders need to embrace.
Biggest Opportunity – COVID-19 has meant that we have had to change the way we do so many things, we have the opportunity to further progress those positive changes and permanently incorporate them into the way we practice. Examples that come to mind are connecting with our clients and colleagues in virtual environments. The community’s increased appetite for veterinary services and the workforce challenges allows the industry the opportunity to engage with creative digital solutions which will allow us to deliver care more efficiently and effectively.
Biggest Challenge – Certainly the most important challenge we currently face is the well-being of our teams. This has many contributing factors – the increased demand for services has given job security but has paradoxically caused strain on our caring teams due to capacity constraints. We need to be realistic, strategic and empathetic in how we manage the time of our teams. This includes better use of our amazing nurses and concerted efforts to develop, implement and reward this large pool of talent. We should be developing better customer workflows to reduce stresses on teams.
There needs to be a focus on essential veterinary services for teams and ensuring we set realistic hours of availability for service provision. This will help ensure we create safe workplaces that are supported by a strong culture and focus on well-being for team members.
Biggest Opportunity – The disruption of COVID-19 has highlighted some of the challenges we face as a profession but has also shown us how resilient and how important we are to our communities. From the disruption and adaptation, opportunities have emerged, which include the use of communication technologies. Customer services such as telemedicine and video call options, and online service and delivery preferences have grown as a preferred customer channel. Internal communication channels such as Zoom allow us to share important and relevant information for our hospitals in more efficient ways that are considerate of the time constraints for our teams. If we take the time to further develop this technology, our options will continue to be refined.
Biggest Challenge –I believe one of the biggest challenges for the veterinary industry is managing the high attrition rate and global veterinary shortage – not only with veterinarians but with our vet nurses and ancillary veterinary workers. The profession already has a disproportionate rate of suicide, and sadly we are still hearing about those who chose to take their own lives. What I have been hearing from my veterinary clients and colleagues this year, is the high level of stress that is being experienced, predominantly due to the additional demands placed on the veterinary profession since the impact of COVID-19. This is a global issue and not just limited to Australia. While we do seem to have a big focus on the public’s impact on the profession, some other big challenges I see are a continued (but perhaps reduced) stigma involved in speaking up and seeking help from qualified mental health professionals, as well as addressing toxic and mentally unhealthy work cultures and private social media groups.
Biggest Opportunity – What I have personally witnessed since the official launch of Love Your Pet Love Your Vet in 2018, is a greater awareness of veterinary wellbeing, and a trend towards making self-care a priority and speaking up – rather than just settling for the status quo. Unfortunately, there is still a long way to go, but I have definitely witnessed a positive shift. There has been quite a significant amount of media coverage around the psychological issues affecting the veterinary industry, which, for the most part, has helped to positively raise awareness of the struggles the profession contends with and has been, facing for decades. I believe there are plenty of opportunities to continue this forward momentum together to significantly affect the much-needed paradigm shift that I set out to conquer in 2017. And rather than individuals and groups who are perhaps not aware of such services, I would love to see a collective approach, of people, professionals, institutions, corporations and governments rallying – with established and expert organisations in the field of veterinary mental health and wellbeing.
Biggest Challenge – I believe the biggest challenge our industry has, is that pet ownership is evolving faster than our profession is. Their desire and needs for higher connectivity, more services, mobility, convenience, and technology are influencing their decisions on how they consume veterinary care and placing more pressure on an already stressed system within small animal practices. Due to COVID-19 creating the surge of new patients, curbside models, and emphasising staff shortages, our veterinary businesses are struggling to maintain day-to-day operations, let alone deliver the most optimised customer experience for the newly emerging Millennial pet parent. Our industry has a responsibility to help find ways to focus on the wellbeing of these critical care providers, streamline new technology for seamless integration and encourage more convenient connection points with pet owners. All of this, while building opportunities for recruitment of veterinary technicians and students that are more representative of our diverse, and increasing population of pet owners is important.
Biggest Opportunity – The biggest opportunity in our industry is that pets are living longer now more than ever because of innovation in veterinary medicine with a new and engaged generation of pet parents willing to spend on pet care. In addition, the trust these pet parents have for the veterinarian has increased to even higher levels post COVID-19. How do we maximise this opportunity? I truly believe that a digital transformation is needed within veterinary care. Integrated opportunities to build the “connected care” journey from early pet parent education and pet care awareness; diagnostics for early detection; mobile connection opportunities like telehealth; and post-diagnosis monitoring through video or wearables. These could all build better patient outcomes, deliver value to the vet practice to be successful, and meet the emerging needs of pet parents. However, this cannot be realised unless it is easy to integrate and manage without becoming overwhelming or cumbersome to the veterinary team within the clinic. We must work together as an industry to be the best business partners for the veterinary profession to help them with this transformation.
Biggest Challenge – The biggest challenge for the veterinary industry by far is the widespread shortage of veterinarians. The two big reasons: poor remuneration and poor job satisfaction. Poor remuneration is a necessary consequence of low production. A veterinary practice is a business that cannot afford to pay higher salaries if the gross revenue in turn is not high enough. I’m not saying that vets are not busy, but I argue contend that in many practices’, vets are doing work that others less qualified could do. For vets to be paid more and to enjoy greater job satisfaction they must continually upskill and better delegate to leverage their time. Vets can achieve more each day if they maximise the assistance of their support staff. Are vets being the best patient advocates possible? When I owned several practices with a team of more than 80, I employed vets who were paid very handsomely and enjoyed their careers because they were outstanding patient advocates and team players – and as a side-effect, generated much higher-than-average total fees.
Biggest Opportunity – The increase in pet ownership as a consequence of COVID-19 lockdowns is a cause for celebration. It reminds societies about the profound importance of the human-animal bond and the mental and physical health benefits for people. Society has given us a solemn responsibility to be unwavering advocates for animals and their health and welfare. With the increase in pet numbers, there is a heightened need for everyone in the veterinary industry, but particularly veterinary practice teams, to do everything possible to ensure maximum rates of healthcare compliance. Achieving this requires a multifaceted approach involving our people, technology and industry partnerships.
Our people must receive the best education on the “why” and on what excellence in compliance looks like. We must train the entire team because regardless of their role in the practice, each person plays their part from adhering to high standards of care in the treatment room or to communicating effectively at the front desk. Technology allows us to achieve better and quicker diagnoses, communicate with clients more efficiently and more effectively and facilitate the smooth running of practice operations. While all the above can seem overwhelming, it’s important to remember we are not alone. Our partners in the industry have many solutions available which will make practice life easier and enhance our patient advocacy. If we can rise to the challenge, pets and their owners will benefit, our people will benefit, and the practice business will benefit. Good medicine is good business!
Biggest Challenge – Some of the biggest challenges are in staffing, a widespread shortage of vets, nurses, and other staff. In addition, attracting and engaging students and new graduates, whilst developing and sustaining their future careers are of critical importance. This is tied to the overall industry and veterinary practice success, as well as staff retention, health and mental well-being for our staff, and increased satisfaction for our customers, pet parents, and of course – the animals who need us.
Biggest Opportunity – Some of the biggest opportunities for the industry involve new technology such as telemedicine. However, it’s important to also continue maximising the benefit of current technologies including practice management systems, Cubex and various other integrations. We need to use technology that creates efficiencies and reduces the large workload on our staff. A revenue increase is due thanks to the recent puppy boom and a greater awareness of the value in pets. Another opportunity is to implement a structured rise in salaries and other reward systems i.e. funding of short courses to develop skills in management and clinical work. Lastly, the rise in the value of agricultural commodities in the food animal sector.
Biggest Challenge – The veterinary industry is a complex one and with every industry there’s upsides and downsides. We know how mental health and higher-than-average suicide rates are impacting our industry. It’s been a focal point throughout the pandemic as lockdowns and increasing rates of pet ownership have meant teams are stretched thin and beyond. The greatest challenge I see is that despite being tired or under-resourced, it is making time and focusing energy on the change that is needed. And that is geared towards the industry leveraging technology – we are the laggards – and to move forward, teams must have the right attitudes, commitment and energy for the change.
Biggest Opportunity – The top opportunity for the veterinary industry is harnessing technology – really embedding it into the provision of health care for the pets we serve to provide better patient outcomes. I am so excited about what the future could bring to preventing, anticipating, and managing disease. There are opportunities with the Internet of Medical Things (IoMT), wearable tech, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and big data, to name a few. Whilst some veterinarians might think that they are at risk of being replaced or less valuable – perhaps worrying that they’ll end up being a sports referee managed by the ‘video’ or technology referee – I would see it more as an opportunity to work smarter not harder. The analogy I would liken it to is a car that has front and rear sensors. Ultimately the driver (vet) is still in control but that driver is leveraging technology to drive (practice veterinary medicine) in the best possible way driving the best possible patient outcomes.
Biggest Challenge – Ensuring people are given the time and support to work on their well-being – a pro-active approach. We shouldn’t be waiting until someone declares they are burnt out to try and help them to cope. We need to continue to build a safe environment for people to speak up when they are not okay and reduce the stigma that surrounds mental health challenges. This is a challenge for the broader community, but every time we start meaningful conversations about mental health and well-being, we are heading in the right direction.
Biggest Opportunity – Right now, we are sadly faced with a devastatingly high rate of suicide in the veterinary industry, as well as high rates of stress and burnout. Our opportunity is enormous to increase well-being and save lives. We have the opportunity to build resilience and set people up for the workplace demands that they will inevitably face. This includes students, recent graduates, and existing staff. We need to provide people with the platform to speak and share, debrief and discuss. Ultimately, start that debrief group; create that safe community culture; embed well-being in the workplace.