John Merriman discovers there are many factors to consider before choosing to offer 24-hour patient care at your veterinary practice
While the number of vet clinics offering around-the-clock patient care is currently small, they are increasing. So how do you know if this is something you could, or should offer?
Like any small-to-medium enterprise considering adding or offering a new service, research is likely to offer the best answer. Benefits of offering 24/7 care include creating a new revenue stream for your business by providing emergency services. There’s a likelihood of recurring treatment for these patients. It also increases client traffic to the business, introducing clients to other services being offered.
On the down side, however, it may require long working hours, equipment upgrades and increases in staff and wages.
One of the most important factors to be considered is location. To support the added expenses of equipment, the business will need to obtain a certain level of patient load. Having the ability to draw on a large amount of potential customers in the immediate and surrounding areas is a big plus.
It is also a good idea to examine your existing client base to see where your current customers are coming from.
Di Whatling is currently the practice manager at Companion Animal Health Centre in South Australia, the third vet business she has been involved with which has introduced 24-hour care. “I was working at a clinic in Adelaide which introduced a full-time care service,” explains Whatling.
“We undertook extensive research and formulated a detailed business plan before going ahead as there were so many things which we had to consider.
“Firstly, we found that obtaining the necessary staffing levels was very challenging. There are 168 hours in a week that had to be covered which adds up to several shifts in one day if you have multiple vets working.
“Rostering vets and nurses for hours in the middle of the night, weekends and public holidays is quite expensive. But the good news is you can often find casual workers from other clinics who are wishing to find extra shifts, so that is an advantage when making the change.
“Creating and timing of the shifts is also important as there needs to be time for handover between vets and nurses.
“Secondly, marketing was critically important as there is no point offering a service if no-one knows about it.
“We took out advertising in local newspapers so the public would learn about us, and we held regular meetings with other vets in the area so they would consider referring their patients to us when it was out-of-hours. Holding open days at your vet clinic is also an option to help increase awareness,” continues Whatling.
“It was also vitally important to make other vets aware of what we were doing to gain their trust and build relationships with them so they were confident we were offering a high-level service and not trying to steal their clients.”
“We held regular meetings with other vets so they would consider referring their patients to us when it was out of hours.” Di Whatling, practice manager, Companion Animal Health Centre (SA)
Other costs to consider can include upgrading existing housing for patients, purchasing emergency-care equipment and maintaining this equipment.
Whatling believes it is unlikely vets would yield the benefits of offering a 24-hour service in the short term. “I think people would find it would take at least three or four years to start seeing a positive return on this type of business,” she says. “Things such as return business from the public and confidence from referring vets take time to build up.”
Another aspect to consider is the lifestyle of veterinarians operating the business. If vets offering a 24-hour service have just spent most of the night with an emergency patient, will they be able to service ‘regular’ clients the next day, or would they be too exhausted?
Dr David Lindsay, a former vet practice owner and now a part-time locum, graduated in 1970 and believes vets today are more aware of missing out on spending valuable time with their family and friends. “When I graduated, there were around 250 vets in South Australia; today there are probably around 800. The competition is fierce,” says Dr Lindsay.
“I think we are seeing more vets wanting to reduce the hours they spend in their clinics, not extend them.
“Most vets regularly work from 8.30am to 6.30pm in their own practice. If they are a parent then they are never at home to see their children return from school or see after-school sport.
“And of course, there are always the out-of-hours phone calls that also take you away from family life. It puts a huge amount of stress on relationships. On a positive note, the after-hours case load would provide vets with very interesting and out-of-routine experiences.
“I would guess an after-hours hospital would need to see about 25 cases over a weekend to be profitable, at an average of two or three cases from each surrounding practice. There is probably a demand for one after-hours service for about 10 referring services,” says Dr Lindsay.
Emergency care services bring people into a practice, exposing them to the business, as well as educating them about any specialist services that may be offered, such as dermatology or ophthalmology.
Whatling says the hurdles faced by the large Companion Animal Health Centre are very similar to a small, privately owned practice, just on a larger scale.
“I don’t think a single practitioner would be able to offer a full-time service,” says Whatling. “We have four different centres here at Roseworthy all offering 24-hour care, as well as working as a teaching hospital with the University of Adelaide.
“Having a group of vets working together supplies more employees and often more flexible rostering options.
“It is also worth noting that the cases presented after-hours are very different from the patients seen during normal operating hours.
“At night, vets are more likely to see critical and acute cases due to severe injuries, such as being hit by a car, or poisoning or being involved in a fight with another animal. It is highly unlikely vets will see a patient being presented with itchy skin or a runny nose at three in the morning,” says Whatling.
She says the business model was slowly taking shape since being introduced in May. “Located where we are, which is a long drive from the city of Adelaide, we really needed to attract customers to come out here and give referring vets the confidence to send us their patients,” she says. “We expected it to take a while before people fully understood the services we offered and that is now starting to happen.”