In Washington, Duvall Veterinary Hospital reduced the services they offer to emergency and necessary appointments only, said Kaila Lafferty of K5, an NBC-affiliated television station. Although they are an essential business, the practice had difficulty driving revenue considering the uncertainty of the future,
Michelle Gengler, head doctor and owner of Duvall Veterinary Hospital, noted that the hospital had fewer appointments, with Gengler doing tons of research to ensure that her team is supported and able to pay their bills. However, the hospital closed their lobby and turned it into a “drop-off only” service.
Gengler leveraged online ordering to earn additional income. Most veterinarians offer online and delivery services, as people are ordering online to have the products they bought shipped to their homes. Gengler added, “We are still able to have some income even though it has slacked off in other ways, just because of the safety concerns.”
Survey On the State of Vet Practices During the Pandemic
An online survey was sent via Survey Monkey and distributed on closed Facebook groups: Women in Equine Practice, Equine Vet-2-Vet, Moms with a DVM, AAEP Member Vet Talk and AVMA, which was open from March 23-29, 2020, reported Amy L. Grice, VMD, MBA, or Equipment Management, a business solutions for equine practitioners. With 219 veterinarians responding to the survey, 67.58% said they worked at exclusive practices along with mixed practices (13.24%), companion animal (11.42%), and large animal (7.76%).
When asked “How has your practice responded to the COVID-19 pandemic?” 59.36% said they had made alterations in operations but that they were still seeing all cases. 30.59% said they were seeing urgent/emergency cases only. A little over 4% said they had closed their practices entirely while another 4% stated that they were operating exactly the same as before the pandemic.
When asked, “if your practice has altered operations, but has not closed, what has been changed?” they cited altering appointment procedures (limited client contact, etc.) (74.77%), biosecurity protocols in hospital and/or with ambulatory equipment/truck (64.22%), and ambulatory patient visit protocols (58.26%). Other said they had altered medication/supplies pick-up/ drop-off procedures (46.79%), rescheduling and/or postponing elective and routine care-only seeing urgent or emergency cases (38.99%), and patient drop-off procedures (34.40%).
Regarding the question, “If your practice has implemented changes, how well are clients cooperating?” 54.84% said their clients were cooperating “Pretty well for the vast majority” while 17.05% stated the clients were behaving Amazingly well—the vast majority are going above and beyond.” 15.21% reported their clients were conducting themselves “Well, except for a few clients that are awful” while 5.33% said “It is a struggle to get cooperation, but most do cooperate if we stay firm.” Meanwhile, only about 1% answered “Frustratingly few are cooperating.”
When asked, “How has your practice or the practice where you work reacted to the economic slowdown?” the respondents answered other (36.06%), reduced lay staff hours (32.69%), reduced office hours (25.96%), reduced veterinarian hours (25%), laid off lay staff (11.06%), and renegotiated payment terms with vendors, credit cards (7.21%).
Meanwhile, the respondents helped others during the pandemic by “staying open to provide services” (78.14%) and “conserving Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and postponing elective surgeries, etc.” (64.19%). 13.02% reported donating PPE on hand at the practice to ‘front-line’ organizations.” 5.58% also donated or offered discounted veterinary services to newly unemployed clients.
How Veterinary Practices Can Adapt to the COVID-19 Pandemic
1. Prioritize Appointments and Inform Clients of New Protocols
Some veterinary practices prioritize urgent and sick pet visits over wellness visits, except for puppies and kittens who will be vaccinated, explained Roxanne Hawn of AAHA (American Animal Hospital Association), a non-profit organization for companion animal veterinary hospitals. Practices should halt routine surgeries to help veterinary teams save on supplies and PPEs.
On the other hand, most practices transitioned to a curbside model, which involves calling clients from the parking lot on arrival and shuttling pets to and from the facility by team members. The model also allows clients to stay in their cars and to converse with the practice via phone as needed.
Practices should explain the model to their clients when they schedule appointments and send an email to all clients about the model. Writing about the change on social media is also beneficial. Practices can offer coaching clients on the process again upon arrival. Veterinary services can also share post periodic updates on social media about how well the team members and clients are working to limit close contact while being able to provide the most optimal care to pets.
2. Take Care of Deliveries and Lab Samples
Some veterinary practices prohibit delivery workers into their facilities. Some of the protocols they employed during the pandemic were having delivery drivers leave boxes outside the door, wearing gloves to carry and unpack boxes, and spraying disinfectant on all packages and waiting for them to dry before opening them.
3. Set Exceptions
Veterinary teams should set exceptions to new protocols that suit their comfort level. For example, some practices have created new euthanasia protocols while others offer exceptions for critical cases etc. When Kathy Sheehan recently drove 18 hours to pick up her 10-week-old border collie Roadie, at the Fort Hunt Animal Hospital in Alexandria, Virginia, the hospital offered her to come inside for the appointment.
Touched by the offer, she knew that she would have to decline the offer. She commented, “There are puppies who will truly need the person they trust on the first visit.” Sheehan was confident that Roadie would do fine without his owner, and the hospital appreciated that they trusted her for not taking advantage of the offer. Sheehan explained, “The visit went great. There were quite a few patients in the parking lot. While I will always prefer to be there, I came away feeling just as informed as when I was there.”
4. Cater to Team Member’s Individual Needs and Health
With stay-at-home orders imposed in San Bernardino, California, Animal Care Wellness Center allows its team members to decide by themselves. For instance, if a team member needs to stay home, then they may do so without the risk of unemployment, according to Niza DiCarlo, director of human resources.
Staff who appear to have the symptoms of COVID-19 upon arrival at work or who become sick during the day should be separated from other members, customers, and clients and sent home immediately, advised CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), a national public health institute in the US.
Veterinary clinics and hospitals are trying to adapt to the pandemic, with some laying off their staff or changing their business model. Practices that remained open during the crisis should follow health protocols and take care of their members’ needs.