Remember why you're a veterinarian

Remember why you're a veterinarian

The graceful shape of a cat's face. The watchful eye of a dog. The smile of a grateful client. These are the faces of veterinary care. They keep us going and can help us succeed in practice, conquer our mountains, and be the best veterinarians we can be.
Feb 01, 2011

One day not so long ago, I experienced an interesting phenomenon. Three different people—three of the dozens of faces I see every day—came in with their pets for medical treatment, and each one told me how much they were prepared to spend. One client could spend $100. Another was limited to $200, and the third client said $300 was the maximum she could spend. No one had told these clients how to negotiate with a veterinarian—although some people advise our clients to do this.

Even stars want to be you
Knowing their spending parameters, I gave the same recommendations I would have anyway to the $100 and $200 clients, but with deferred payment options. I would love to have diagnosed the third dog with a $300-or-less disease, but it wasn't the case. Here, like a pediatrician would do with a child, I did with the pet: I advocated for the necessary care. And after hearing the passion in my voice when I told her why I felt strongly that we had to treat her pet with this course of action, she asked how much it would be. It was $480. She didn't say yes, she said YES.

I've always practiced according to this principle: "Tell people what they need—but only what they need." As veterinarians, we can still do everything we need to, but maybe not all at once. If a client's dog has flea allergy dermatitis and needs to be on a strong parasite control program, perhaps he can get caught up on vaccines later.

This may not be how you imagined practice would be. In fact, you may feel lost. If so, perhaps I have something to offer.

Facing your mountain

How many times have you taken a false route on the climb? Felt yourself slip and been caught by someone or something? Gone from clear days to blizzards or experienced months that seemed straight up followed by a sharp downhill? Did you ever do the crazy one-arm hold on a precipice—building a hospital, buying equipment, firing staff—when you didn't feel like you could hold on and didn't know what was just up and over the next incline? Well, you're not alone.

In veterinary medicine, none of us have exactly the same mountain to climb. Our challenges and our triumphs are all different. My mountain is not your mountain.

In fact, some of you might think of your mountain more like a tree—or a stepladder. Maybe yours looks more like a circle because you don't seem to be getting anywhere. Maybe it looks like the stock market: up, then down, then up. (Then down.)

Where are you? Are you in the foothills? Are you near the top? Are you on the lowest branches of the tree? Or are you way out on a limb? Are you climbing the mountain or sliding down the other side?

There's no right or wrong place to be on this journey. But the economy has presented us with a new mountain to climb. Some people think this frugal time will pass by eventually. I think the new fidelity might be here to stay. The "new normal" is shorthand for the reality of hard times.

As we climb this mountain, all of us will have to work harder. "Compliance" will no longer be the right word to describe our relationship with clients. Clients won't "comply"; they'll follow the plan we work out together with them in the exam room.

In the old days, we gave an estimate or quote, explained it, and the client pulled out a platinum card. What a different thing it is when he or she begins by telling us, "This is how much I have to spend." Maybe this new frugality won't last forever—but for many doctors, it's here now. Let's get back to basics. Let's remember why we do what we do.