Case studies: Make sure new equipment earns its keep

Case studies: Make sure new equipment earns its keep

Your relationship with a piece of equipment should outlast the warranty. These experts share their success stories about making good buys.
Sep 01, 2009

It's easy to fall in love on the trade show floor. He's tall, dark, and chrome-colored. She's petite, shiny, and would fit perfectly on the countertop in your lab. Under the bright lights of the exhibit hall, you may be irresistibly drawn to sign a long-term contract for the one you adore. But before you tie the knot, ask yourself if you're spending all that money for a machine you'll never use. After all, clients need to be willing to pay for the service. Your associates need to know how to use the equipment. That glossy model that's so alluring on the exhibit hall floor could be gathering dust in a few months in some forgotten corner of your surgery suite. You want a love that will last.

So don't make this big purchasing decision for emotional reasons, says Gary Glassman, CPA. Glassman, a Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board member, is a partner with Burzenski & Co. in East Haven, Conn., and specializes in veterinary accounting and tax planning. He says many successful equipment purchases are marriages of convenience. In other words, you pulled out your pencil and did the math. If this sounds like a passionless approach to a process that normally sets your heart racing, it is. But Glassman says an analytical attitude will save you a boatload of heartache.

Some practices even wait until they've got the clientele to support the service before they buy the equipment. Consider the case of Dr. Michael Farber and his ultrasound machine.


Estimated cost: $10,000 for small portable unit; $35,000 for larger unit

Charge per ultrasound: $350

Frequency of use: 20 to 25 times per week

Dr. Farber, owner of West Chelsea Veterinary in New York, used to employ an outside ultrasonographer who traveled from practice to practice to perform ultrasounds. But when one of Dr. Farber's associates, Dr. Jennifer Mlekoday, expressed an interest in learning ultrasonography, Dr. Farber did the math. At the time, 10 to 15 clients a week were paying for the recommended sonograms. So Dr. Farber purchased a small portable ultrasound unit for $10,000, and Dr. Mlekoday used her continuing education budget to start taking classes. Her education included training with a traveling ultrasonographer, attending several intensive learning programs, and lots of practice. In a few years, she was proficient.

As Dr. Mlekoday's skills and interest grew, Dr. Farber invested in a larger unit for $35,000. Now his associate performs about 20 to 25 in-house ultrasounds a week, and Dr. Farber's practice keeps a larger share of the profits. "This equipment really paid for itself quickly because of the demand we had and the commitment Dr. Mlekoday showed toward training," Dr. Farber says.

An important point: Dr. Farber says taking and interpreting ultrasounds is a very skilled task, so it requires a lot of training. He couldn't have afforded to purchase the equipment for someone to dabble in it. The practice needed a doctor who was committed to the education.

As a bonus, now the doctors don't all need to schedule ultrasounds on the same day for a traveling practitioner. "Now we can use it in cases of emergency, and some of the other doctors feel comfortable picking it up to look for pyometra or fluid in the abdomen," Dr. Farber says. He estimates that other doctors in the practice use the machine an additional six to 12 times a week.

How do you know if you're ready for an ultrasound? Dr. Farber says in his case the numbers spoke for themselves. He was paying an outside ultrasonographer about $200 an ultrasound. "So when you're doing 20 to 25 a week, it adds up pretty quickly and it starts to make sense to do it yourself," he says. ?


Equipment: Wall-mounted, floor, or handheld; direct or indirect digital; requires laptop and digital plates

Estimated cost: $3,000 to $12,000

Estimated charge: $50 to $200 for a full mouth series, depending on practice finances and the size of the patient

Frequency of use: Daily for cleanings

If you're not doing dental digital radiography, you're seeing only part of the pet's healthcare picture, says Dr. Brett Beckman, FAVD, DAVDC, DAAPM, president of the American Veterinary Dental Society. Dr. Beckman sees countless pets with mouths that appear normal—until he reviews the radiographs. This simple step can uncover serious problems and pain in pets, and treating these patients helps you offer better medical care. It also offers a profit center if you're willing to invest in the time and training to learn how to treat dental problems.

"A dental digital radiography machine is the most profitable piece of equipment in a clinic," says Dr. Kate Knutson, owner of Pet Crossing Animal Hospital and Dental Clinic in Bloomington, Minn. "There are few patients that don't need dental radiographs. And I can't imagine doing dentistry without them. Just as I wouldn't be able to diagnose how badly a leg was broken without a radiograph, I can't understand a patient's potential periodontal disease without a dental radiograph."

To get started, Dr. Beckman recommends formal instruction. Training is often included in the cost of the equipment. Some companies will include education as an adjunct or refer you to experienced professionals for training. The equipment is easy to use, he explains, but positioning the patient to get good images takes practice. At a minimum you'll likely need at least three to four hours' training on positioning, and possibly another half-day of training on basic image interpretation.

Technicians are often the drivers for dentistry in the practice, Dr. Beckman says. So it's a great idea to train technicians to take images too. Just remember, dental care needs to take place under the supervision of a veterinarian to stay in accordance with your state's laws.