Vets in motion

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obstruction concept in night traffic street at the Moscow AutomoThe chance to break away from a stationary clinic and go mobile is, for some vets, a compelling business opportunity. Nicole Szollos scopes the considerations before starting out on the adventure

The world is increasingly becoming mobile and so too are vets. As consumers demand more convenience, pet care also ranks highly. Vets are recognising this need and answering the call.

Scan the websites of mobile vets in Australia and many reference convenience as the main selling point. The typical client for a mobile vet, according to Dr Ben Ajilian from Vet on the Run, either works full time, has geriatric animals who can’t travel, are elderly themselves or do not drive. He set up his mobile vet business a year ago to service the Sydney suburb of Rhodes and surrounds after identifying demand from the volume of residential units in the area and lots of companion animals. His clients mostly call for routine medical issues, vaccinations and minor treatments, and he offers weekends and after-hours appointments.

“There’s a good market for it in this area. People find it helpful to have the vet come to them. There are lots of people looking for mobile services,” Dr Ajilian says.

Client demand is also what led Dr Adam Stefani from Mornington Veterinary Clinic to set up a mobile vet offering alongside his Melbourne-based practice.

“Speaking to clients at the clinic, many said they had trouble getting there for various reasons. We had always offered home visits; we would use our personal cars. Then about five years ago, we bought the van and set up the mobile vet service,” he says.

The majority of Dr Stefani’s mobile business is treating animals belonging to elderly clients and about a third of all call-outs are for euthanasia. He says introducing the mobile service was a seamless integration, but the biggest change was factoring booking home visit appointments among clinic patients. Meanwhile, fitting in emergency cases is an ongoing challenge.

“We are a small, two-vet practice and we’re quite busy. If we get an urgent case that is a home visit, it can be challenging because if the day is already booked, it is difficult to rush off to an urgent consult,” he says.

With 15 years under his belt as a mobile vet, Dr Brett Boling from Adelaide Mobile Vet is well acquainted with life on the road. After spending the first half of his career as a rural vet, when the time came to establish his own business, he says “the concept of being stuck in a building didn’t appeal”. And with experience working in emergency services, Dr Boling was used to working on his own and driving, and comfortable with working in a non-clinic environment. He says experience and confidence are two essential attributes to being a mobile vet.

“People find it helpful to have the vet come to them. There are lots of people looking for mobile services.” Dr Ben Ajilian, Vet on the Run

“If you didn’t have a solid base of experience, it would be intimidating doing everything yourself and not having a nurse to help. You also need to feel comfortable going into people’s houses in different and difficult circumstances; one of the most intimidating things is doing a euthanasia in the home and you need to have the experience and confidence to do it well,” he says.

Dr Ajilian has been practising as a vet since graduating in 2003, and in his first year as a mobile vet he has reached the same conclusion.

“It’s not always easy going into people’s homes. You have to show that you are skilled and confident. Communication skills are also very important; you are in their environment and the way you present yourself is key. You have to make them trust you,” he says.

In addition to soft skills, various administrative tasks are part of setting up a mobile vet business, such as registering a company name and taking out insurance. Advertising and marketing are other essentials. For Dr Boling, marketing has been the biggest challenge over the years. He says Yellow Pages advertising worked well in the past and with the move to Google, he has invested in his company website to maximise rankings. Despite these marketing efforts he says most business has come from other avenues.

“A lot of business is generated by word of mouth, or the van itself. The van is covered with advertising magnets that people take at the traffic lights or when it is parked. I also get referrals now from other vet clinics,” he says.

Dr Ajilian also covered the basics to market his business—Google advertising, company website and vehicle branding—and given the high concentration of residential apartments in his target area he did a letterbox drop of promotional flyers. The exercise proved beneficial; tracking return on investment, he has found the majority of new customers have come through this activity or the website.

Perhaps the number-one requirement for a mobile vet is their vehicle. The type and size depends on the services being provided and while the full-scale mobile surgery hasn’t been big in Australia yet, the option exists.

Rod Mackay, design manager at Oxford EME and EasyVet, part of the K Care Group, has been involved in, and now leads, the design of the EasyVet range of mobile vet clinics—the Animal Transport Unit, Animal Care Unit and Animal Hospital Unit.

“The stimulus for our move into veterinary vehicles was the RSPCA coming to us enquiring about suitably equipped vans during the tragic bushfires in Victoria in 2009. The vets were operating on koalas on picnic tables,” he says.

The EasyVet mobile vet clinics are designed and manufactured to order and based on a custom fit-out with specific modifications depending on requirements.

“The fit-out, customisation and size of the vehicle will depend upon the vet’s needs. If it is intended to be a surgery, they need to have an operating table, equipment, an animal recovery space, storage for medication and supplies, and a computer dock for record keeping and files,” Mackay explains.

A mobile vet business appeals to many clients.
A mobile vet business appeals to many clients.

Tony Nelson is the senior sales executive of Byron Group’s Emergency Services Unit, which manufacturers ambulances and patient transport vehicles. He says while there hasn’t been a great deal of calls from vets for mobile veterinary clinics, the company has worked with the RSPCA in NSW and the ACT to create customised transport vehicles with various cages, and one included an examination table. Nelson says there are standard steps to create a custom-built mobile clinic and a prerequisite is to fully understand the client’s requirements.

“We sit down with the client, talk to them about their requirements and what they are trying to achieve. Then we’ll make suggestions and modifications. We have a team of design engineers who create the 3D design concepts on the computer to determine the space and the interiors—we need to check that it works virtually first. Once we have sign-off from the client on the design, we then proceed with the build,” he explains.

The alternative approach is to purchase a standard vehicle and customise to suit. Dr Boling’s Adelaide Mobile Vet van has a rack for medication built into the space behind the passenger sliding door so that medication can be accessed from outside, which he says works well. The van also has a fridge for storing medication and includes moulded plastic inserts in the back for transporting animals. Dr Stefani’s vet van includes an animal cage, bedding and rubber matting for transportation. Mobile vets also carry a full medical kit with all the essentials for home visits.

Operating a one-person mobile vet business requires a big commitment to customers, and time management is an important consideration. “You have to get involved in all aspects of the business —paperwork, reminders, call-backs with lab results, etc. There is a lot of follow-up required,” says Dr Ajilian.

Dr Boling took a different approach and hired a business manager from the outset to manage the bookings and clerical duties.

“The biggest mistake vets make is they try to be business managers instead of being vets,” he says. “My business manager is very efficient at booking my time—it’s been key to the business. If you’re going to run a mobile vet service properly, you do the vet stuff and someone else manages your time.”

Maximising time on the road treating patients makes good business sense. Although customers can be charged a premium for the convenience, mobile vets must be well organised with their time. For example, Dr Boling’s service covers most of Adelaide but he rarely travels more than 10 minutes between appointments, meaning he can see two patients an hour continuously. His current record is 23 in one long day. Not surprisingly, Dr Boling’s final advice to would-be mobile vets is “have a very understanding wife or husband!”

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