Dr. Karen E. Felsted, CPA, MS, DVM, CVPM, CVA

For those of you not familiar with VetPartners, it’s an organization of practice management advisors and consultants who work primarily or exclusively with veterinary practices.  On a combined basis, these consultants and advisors work with many practices (small, large, companion animal, equine, mixed, general, specialty and emergency) and consequently see a lot of what is going on in the profession.

VetPartners holds two in-person meetings a year with much of the emphasis being on trends in the profession and what can be done to help practices (and the profession) be better.  This year’s Mid-Year meeting was held in Denver, CO in conjunction with the annual AVMA Convention and focused primarily on two significant issues impacting the profession—team utilization and the shortage of veterinarians.

Team utilization has been an issue in veterinary medicine for a long time; it’s not something practices have traditionally done as well as they could.  We’ve been lucky that if practices needed more help, they just hired it.  However, with the difficulties in finding (and keeping) all types of staff, particularly doctors and credentialed technicians, it’s become clear that another solution is needed.  Some industry organizations and leaders have suggested the creation of a mid-level practitioner position (similar to a Physician’s Assistant in human medicine) but better using the people we already have, particularly credentialed technicians, may be a quicker and easier solution and this is where most of the discussion was focused.  Unfortunately, this idea isn’t without its challenges; if it was widely accepted and so simple, the profession would have done it much sooner.

Following a short introductory presentation (“Overview:  Staff Utilization”) by Dr. Karen Felsted covering some of the issues related to team utilization (impact on pet owners, technician pay and retention, measuring and tracking team utilization and others), much of the rest of the day focused on a Technician Utilization panel presentation and related VetPartners member discussion.  The panel was moderated by Mary Berg, RVT, VTS and panel members included:  Douglas Kratt, DVM, Jamie Rauscher, LVT, Heather Prendergast, RVT, CVPM, SPHR and Andrea Crabtree, CVPM, SPHR, PHRca, CCFP, Fear Free—clearly a highly credentialed and knowledgeable group!  Some of the topics covered included:

  • The benefits to team members, practice operations and pet owners of improved efficiency and productivity
  • Why is the lack of team utilization even a “thing” when it seems so obvious that improved productivity and efficiency will help not only practices but pet owners?
  • The potential impact of better utilization on fee increases and cost of care
  • Why is there resistance in many practices to more effectively using credentialed technicians and other team members?
  • The impact of the vast difference in state licensing regulations on solving this problem
  • The difficulty in attracting people to technician programs and in keeping credentialed technicians in the field
  • Specific changes practices can make to improve not just credentialed technician utilization but utilization of all team members

The most difficult component of this problem to understand and work through is the resistance to better utilization of technicians and other team members by practice owners, associates and non-doctor staff; until we can understand and deal with that, other changes won’t have the desired positive impact.  Because of the current high demand for veterinary care and the continued shortage of doctors and other team members, there should be no better time to make progress in improving utilization, productivity and efficiency.

The other hot topic covered in the meeting has to do with the shortage of veterinarians, the difficulty in hiring them, how many doctors will be needed in the future and how to fix this problem going forward.  This is definitely a controversial topic; while there seems to be general agreement that right now, today, the profession is dealing with a shortage of veterinarians and difficulty in hiring by almost every practice that needs doctors; there is clearly NOT agreement about how many more doctors will be needed in the future, the magnitude of increased pet owner demand in the coming years and whether or not the solutions recently put into place will be enough to resolve this situation.

VetPartners was fortunate to have a number of veterinary leaders share their thoughts and (conflicting!) perspectives on this issue including Dr. Jim Lloyd, PhD who discussed the need for veterinarians in the future, James T. Penrod, CAE, FASLA (the veterinarian licensing process), Mark L. Cushing, JD (expanding veterinary schools to combat staffing shortages), Andrew T. Maccabe, DVM (challenges faced by veterinary colleges) and Dr. Lori M. Teller, DABVP, CVJ (expected need for veterinarians in the future and solutions to these problems that are already in place and expected to mitigate the challenges going forward.)

Following the individual presentations was a panel discussion focused on Solving the Veterinary Workforce Shortage.  Panel members included the above individuals with moderation by Dr. Peter Weinstein, MBA.  This discussion generated some spirited audience participation; the panelists are not the only ones with strong opinions but what do you expect from a group of consultants?  I don’t think this meeting and these discussions solved the problem but definitely every one walked away with more information than they had previously and a lot to think about regarding the future of veterinary medicine.

One of the first issues that needs to be worked through is all the numbers being thrown around and used to support various positions.  Related to this is the sustainability of pandemic practice revenue growth into the future and how much of this growth was from a true change in demand vs. fee increases.  Not an easy problem to understand but once there is some agreement on what the future looks like, evaluating needed solutions (including those already in place such as new veterinary schools and expanded class sizes) will be much easier.

VetPartners has since established a solutions based task force to further explore both of these issues.

As if this wasn’t enough to keep attendees engage, other “late-breaking news” sessions covered the following topics:

  • The Power of Perspective: Turning Veterinary Industry Uncertainties into PAWSITIVE Opportunities (Alexandra Kohrs)
  • Research Findings: Veterinary Clients’ Perception of Information Exchange and Decision Making (Anne Tomsic)
  • Veterinary Valuation Bubble—Why Did it Happen and When Will Valuations Return” (Gary L. Ackerman, DVM)

Not sure this is the right forum to go into detail about all the networking and social events that were part of the meeting, but it wasn’t all work and no play!  It’s a great group of people and if you have any interest in learning more about or joining VetPartners, check out the website at www.VetPartners.org.