Mind-blowing technology, increasing specialisation, and the effect of feminisation—here’s a guide to the most significant trends shaping the field of veterinary science. By Kerryn Ramsey
1. Technological advances
From practice management upgrades to equipment advances, from artificial intelligence to machine-learning, technology is making vet practices run much more efficiently. “Just 10 years ago, we were still putting X-ray plates through a developer,” says Dr Rob Webster, chief executive officer of Animal Emergency Service (AES) in Queensland and WA. “Now digital is used in almost every vet practice. The image can be easily edited post-exposure, and when we need a second opinion, we just text a photo of the radiograph.”
On the practice management side, the greatest change has been the digital revolution. “It’s changed our ability to communicate with clients and other professionals,” says Dr Webster who points out that clients now expect businesses to be connected 24/7. “It’s a daunting, but exciting, change because we can interact with far more people on a regular basis and build relationships with potential clients at a fraction of the previous cost.”
2. Client services
Online reviews may improve word-of-mouth but it only takes a few cranky clients to affect your business. This has seen the standards of care and service rising. “Every client now wants to have an ‘experience’,” says veterinary business coach and author Dr Diederik Gelderman, “and if you don’t give them an experience, they will forget all about you and transition to someone else. This is what clients judge you on.”
3. Mobile vet boom
As mobile vet services continue to expand, operators such as Pawssum connect pet owners with home vet services by partnering with local vets. Pawssum now has more than 140 vets signed up and numbers are growing strongly. “On-demand economy is the norm these days,” says Guy Sharabi, co-founder of Pawssum. “Vets have the flexibility to decide what services they want to provide, where they want to travel to and when. They can also opt in and out of the system when they feel like. From what we’ve learned, about 80 per cent of vet visits can be done at home, and more complex cases take place in one of our partner clinics. We will continue to invest in R&D and in integrating with our partner clinics.”
4. Business balancing act
As corporations continue to expand, their attraction is that vets are free to concentrate on veterinary work, rather than dealing with management of the business. Other business models also continue to grow, be it a single veterinarian owner/manager or a mega-practice. A recent trend, particularly in the US, is co-operative organisations in which independence of clinic ownership is preserved in a structure that allows shared purchasing.
As practices become increasingly competitive in Australia, primary-care veterinarians are actively referring more cases for advanced specialist care, translating into better outcomes for owners and their patients. According to Simon Hickey, CEO of Greencross Limited, the profession is becoming a collaborative-care model similar to what’s taken place in human medicine for many years. “The trends we are seeing here support the findings of data coming out of the US,” he says. “Pets whose health is co-managed by primary-care veterinarians and ancillary-care services do better than those managed by primary-care veterinarians alone.”
“Just 10 years ago, we were still putting X-ray plates through a developer. Now digital is used in almost every vet practice.”
Dr Rob Webster, CEO, Animal Emergency Service
Dr Webster notes that while specialising can be an effective way to hone vets’ knowledge, be wary. “Don’t go out there with blinkers on thinking that specialising in a field will lead to more sustainable workloads and better pay,” he says. “All the specialists I know work very demanding hours, and there are many other avenues for career progression within the vet profession.”
6. Women’s world
When it comes to feminisation, the profession has experienced a huge shift over the past 30 years. In the 2016 Australian Veterinary Workforce survey, females outnumber male full-time vets in 21 out of 28 work categories. Despite this trend, the gender pay gap is still an issue. “For those who are presently 45-49 years old, the median hourly rate reported for women was around 25 per cent lower than for men,” noted Dr Paula Parker, president of the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA). Despite this, a US report by Clare Allen, Feminisation: threat or opportunity?, stated that there’s a reason to be optimistic for the future of the veterinary profession. “Understanding these processes helps us to define the threats to the future of the profession better and we have an opportunity to intercede, and create better opportunities for veterinary graduates,” she says.
7. Pet insurance boom
Vet owners have responded to the growth of pet insurance policies in Australia with an estimated 609,000 pet owners having pet insurance. “When clients come into Animal Emergency Service in the middle of the night, they realise that they should have bought pet insurance last week,” says Dr Webster. “We actively encourage all clients to take out pet insurance for peace of mind, but it really sells itself.”
8. Upmarket products
A common trend at practices is to upscale by selling quality—even luxury—food products and accessories. “In many practices, the percentage of total practice profit which comes from over-the-counter and other non-professional service sales runs at 45 per cent, while profit from professional services runs at 55 per cent,” says Dr Gelderman. He reiterates that while it’s worth selling products as “cream”, it’s not the priority in the profession. “The margin on products is far less than the margin on professional services. And we can’t compete against bricks-and-mortar pet-focused retailers, nor with online retailers.”
9. Work-life balance
While work-life balance has always been a challenge for this profession, there has been some relief for veterinarians over the past decade. According to Paswsum’s Guy Sharabi, work-life balance is more viable for mobile vets as they can choose the hours and locations they want to work, and the type of vet work they want to do. “It’s like they’re running their own business without having to set up the technology to do it,” he says, noting that their business model particularly appeals to vets with school-aged kids. “Pawssum vets don’t have to handle bookings, billings, customer support, payments or paperwork, and we also cover them with our public liability and professional indemnity insurance.”
10. Suicide prevention
The suicide rate for veterinarians remains alarmingly high, with vets doubling the suicide rate of doctors and dentists. The reasons include work- and life-related stressors, and individual characteristics. To help vets who are having mental health issues, the AVA now has a range of programs, including a 24-hour counselling service, a benevolent fund, and training so every vet facility in Australia has a person who’s able to provide first aid and help to those in crisis.