Long Tail Theories No. 3: How the veterinary profession has coped through the pandemic

Welcome to the third article in our Long Tail Theories blogs: a look at what’s been happening in the animal world during coronavirus and beyond. 

These pieces mark five years of PR and marketing communications campaigns from The View for pet and vet clients.  We’ve been talking to a range of experts with fascinating insights and opinions on the business, the animals themselves and our deep relationship with them, particularly in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic.

This time we look at vets – and their businesses.  The multiple stresses and how they’ve coped to make the best of an extraordinary time.

For the last month or so many have resumed routine surgeries and appointments although they tend to remain somewhat limited.  They’re still not conducted in a ‘normal manner’, to comply with social distancing guidelines. But, necessity being the mother of invention, the pandemic has spawned innovative new ways of working.

The roll-out of telemedicine amongst veterinary practices

We chatted with James Westgate, editor of Veterinary Times and Veterinary Business Journal. He told us: “Despite the ‘stay at home’ message, especially in the early days of the crisis, demand from clients hasn’t fallen away and pressure on vets has been enormous. The challenges have been many and varied from business to personal.”

With practices only handling emergencies in person, for the first few weeks there’s been significant take-up of telemedicine for other cases.  It sounds like the perfect solution, but is not straightforward for vets.  James explains: “It’s difficult when they can’t physically have patients in the surgery.   They can only see the animal and aren’t able to ‘palpate the abdomen’ (vets like to do this!!) and it’s not always easy to get owners to handle their pets successfully to show what may be wrong.

He continues: “The vast majority of vets are now offering telemedicine but it’s taking 30-35% longer for each consultation than before Covid. This is partly to do with the sheer amount of time it takes.  For instance they may find themselves charging £60 for an out-of-hours weekend consultation, but be hanging on a Facetime call for 10-15 minutes before an owner can locate their cat in the garden.”

But telemedicine can offer real efficiencies too.  Co-founder of charity StreetVet, Jade Statt adds: “Our work is out there in the towns and cities, giving free veterinary treatment and care to pets of the homeless.  We are conducting more telemedicine.  It means we’re able to support our clients from a distance, whether they’re now temporarily in hotels or B&Bs.

She continues: “We are looking to have telemedicine available in our future StreetVet Accredited Hostels. We will be able to triage animals to see what is needed. I think it will be a great benefit.”

Veterinary teams squeezed

According to the vet/pet specialist market research consultancy CM, 88 per cent of all UK veterinary practices have been furloughed or laid employees off.  And SPVS the veterinary leadership and wellbeing organisation polled members in April and May.  It reported that staffing capacity was running at just 40-60 per cent of the normal workforce.

Depleted teams have had to cope with all the work, whether emergency, teleconsults or increasingly now more routine in-surgery appointments.  This has posed real issues in terms of social distancing for staff, especially where animals need to be handled by more than one person at the same time.  31 per cent of the SPVS respondents said they were dissatisfied with the social distancing arrangements for staff within the workplace.

One vet questioned by CM Research explained: “I’ve been running the practice six days a week with one nurse and one manager and rest of staff furloughed. It has been exhausting. There are no funds for locums to relieve me as a vet and the practice has had to get loans and grants from the government and redundancies may occur.”

James Westgate continues: “There’s been burn-out for teams in many places, but the good news is that out of all professions, vets are one of the best placed to get through the pandemic safely, given they are so well trained in bio-security and infection control.”

Veterinary sector no longer recession-proof, but some margins increased

It’s been a strange time for the bottom line too.  Westgate says: “The veterinary sector has previously been recession-proof, but it’s probably not anymore.”  But different pictures ARE emerging.

From a business perspective, there are a few good news stories.  Some practices have increased margin while overall turnover has decreased, although much of it is due to the fact that so many staff have been on furlough – and the biggest cost is salaries.  Some, according to CM Research, have reported only a slight dip in profits due to picking up emergency work from other local practices.

And less measurable, but rather hearteningly, one of CM’s respondents said: “Most clients have been very supportive, and quite a few see veterinarians as key worker.  They’ve thanked us for doing our job”.  Another reported: “In some ways it has been beneficial as the time has allowed reflection on life.  The clinic is more relaxed.”

James again: “The backlog of patients and problems or preventative medicine (for instance vaccines that haven’t been identified as an emergency) that weren’t seen during lockdown will create a spike in demand, unless there’s a second outbreak of coronavirus and lockdown has to be reintroduced in various areas.

Despite the significant downs recently, there have been countless happy new relationships forged with pets of all shapes and sizes and a deepening relationship with existing ones.  In the next of our Long Tail Theories series of blogs, we’ll look at the human-animal bond; just what makes it so deep and so special – and how it makes us better people because of it.  Please join us next time!





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