Economic commission shows how to increase veterinary visits

In order to combat declining veterinary visits, practices need to address five specific problem areas, according to a new study.

A January 2011 GVMA E-news article reported that the Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study, conducted by Bayer Animal Health, the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues (NCVEI) and Brakke Consulting, identified six root causes of declining visits: The recession, fragmentation of veterinary services, and the prevalence of online information were identified as environmental factors. Client-specific factors included a lack of understanding of the need for visiting the veterinarian, "sticker shock" at the perceived high cost of care, and resistance to bringing cats to the veterinarian.

How to get clients back in the door

In order to boost client visits, NCVEI CEO Karen Felsted, DVM, CPA, CVPM, pointed out five key solutions for veterinarians to consider in order to combat declining visits. The solutions are:

•  Track visits and related metrics monthly
•  Develop and communicate a profession-wide mantra regarding need for exams and other care
•  Manage pricing and communication of value to avoid sticker shock
•  "Friend" the cats in your practice
•  Make it easy for clients to schedule and keep appointments 

Track visits and related metrics monthly

Felsted pointed out that veterinarians should track visits (pet coming to the practice for a procedure or exam), as well as transactions (any invoice). "Right now veterinarians don't generally track visits," Felsted said. "Visits need to be a very important metric that's measured on a regular basis."

Practices should also keep track of new clients, active clients, transactions and visits per active client, and profitability.

Develop and communicate a profession-wide mantra

Human health-related organizations have slogans or mantras such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) "5 a Day for Better Health." According to the Bayer study, the veterinary profession could benefit from a similar mantra encouraging owners to bring pets in for annual exams. Identifying and disseminating science-based information on the need for exams could also be helpful, the study found.

Manage pricing and communication of value to avoid sticker shock

According to the Bayer study, 47 percent of dog owners and 54 percent of cat owners said they would take their pet to the veterinarian more often if each visit was less expensive. Felsted pointed out that large annual price increases are not a sustainable way to stay profitable.

"We simply have to become better educated about how to use pricing appropriately, and also to communicate the value of the services, and also to help pet owners understand that there are some financing options available," Felsted said.

According to the study, close to half of pet owners said a payment plan where they would be billed in equal monthly installments for a year of regular veterinary services would get them to take their pet to the veterinarian more often. Competitive prices for pet products like flea and tick preventatives, supplements and specialty foods would also get clients in the door more often, the study found.

Clients don't necessarily understand what is important about exams, or even how often their pet should be brought in. Forty-six percent of respondents said that they did not completely agree with the statement: "My veterinarian clearly explains when I should bring my pet in for various procedures or tests." So discussing how often a pet should be brought in, as well as communicating the value of the exams are key.

"Many veterinarians do not talk through the exam when they're looking at the pet. So they're running their hands over the forelegs or the rear legs of the pet, the owner just thinks that they're petting the pet," Felsted said. "There is a whole host of things that a veterinarian looks at and evaluates when doing this physical exam and the owners just flat don't get it. They don't get it because we don't communicate it."

"Friend" the cats in your practice

"We aren't going to reverse the personalities of cats," said Felsted. "We aren't going to make them into creatures that want to go out on walks on leashes and ride in cars like dogs do. However, we can make this easier for the cats and easier for the owners."

One key to getting cats into the practice is to find out who has them. Some of your clients may have cats you don't know about. Asking clients what other pets they have when they bring in their dog is an easy way to get the cat into your reminder system, and later for the doctor to educate the client about the need to being the cat in for visits.

Make it easy for clients to schedule and keep appointments

Finally, making it easier for clients to schedule appointments is a simple way to increase visits. Methods such as booking the next appointment before the client leaves the practice and explaining why it is necessary can be effective. Reminders are also important, and you should employ the best way for the client, whether it is postcards, e-mail, or text messages. Online scheduling, phone reminders 48 hours before the appointment, and extended hours can also help.

Felsted said one of the most surprising finding of the study had to do with drop-off services.

"Most veterinary practices will let the pet owner bring their pet in, drop it off, the veterinarian will examine them when they have time during the day, talk to the pet owner either by phone or when they come to pick up the pet, and yet, the majority of pet owners in this study said that they were unaware that their veterinarian offered those services," she said.

Letting clients know this service exists could boost visits, since people have busy lives and schedules.

For more information, check out the PDF presentation of the Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study on NCVEI’s website.

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