Alison Lambert on ‘what vets are avoiding’

by Ramsden J
14 Oct 2018

Back by popular demand after well-received appearances at the 2018 AVA Conference and last year’s Veterinary Business Group Summit, Associate Professor Alison Lambert will be a keynote speaker at the upcoming VBG Summit in Queensland, with the provocatively titled talk ‘So what are we avoiding?’ James Ramsden caught up with Alison to get the scoop.

How is 'avoidance' related to 'building your future today,' the theme of this year’s summit?

When I think about 'avoiding' I think it relates to change; we don’t embrace change as a profession. Telemedicine is a good example, we’re still arguing about it. Why not just start with it? Embrace it. If we do that we’ll learn, make mistakes, learn more, get better and have a strong chance of leading in this new area. If we keep on as we have been, someone else will take up the opportunity, they won’t be vets, and our ongoing involvement becomes less than certain.

Looking back, there are many veterinary activities that have been difficult to change. Anaesthetics, evolving from thiol to gas, took a lot of time. Introducing pain management didn’t happen overnight. We spend a lot of time analysing and going around in circles, particularly when it comes to big issues facing vet business.

Fees are something that we seem to talk about a lot, are we avoiding this issue?

Yes, we’re going around in circles on fees. There are a couple of issues here; we need to put our fees up, seriously rethink margins on drugs, stop worrying about selling food – I don’t mean prescription diets – and start looking at what consumers want, and by that I mean subscription models.

Putting fees up is a no-brainer. We do need leadership here – either from the member associations or a large corporate – but if a large chunk of vets put their fees up, everyone else would follow, and it would become the new norm. What has been happening is a lot of hand-wringing, and little movement on fees, which doesn’t do any good for any of us.

What is it about vets or vet businesses that means we keep going around in circles on these key issues?

It’s a good question, I don’t know the answer but I do know what I see; vets are good at dealing with life-threatening situations that need to be dealt with in ‘the now.’ What vets are not good at is strategic thinking and having the discipline to run a business. There’s also the emotional load carried by many young vets, I see these people feeling the weight of decisions much more than is healthy. It’s fine to put an animal on long-term pain relief but doing that to avoid having to face a more difficult emotional decision like euthanasia is not being effective.

These are things that I see, which are contributing to poor business outcomes, and poor mental health in the industry.

We need to own our futures, and to do that we need to take a risk and make a decision. We’re not taught business skills as students, but those exposed to business over time realise to be successful, you need to try stuff. Failing is part of that, and it’s okay! You make a mistake and then you fix it and move onto the next thing.

One of the real challenges for clinics is getting staff, some say it’s almost impossible to find new vets at the moment – what can you say about that?

It is hard to get staff and this problem is not limited to the veterinary industry. As a society if we’d said 30 years ago “Oh look, there’s a shift in community expectations, the role of men and women and this will affect how people want to work, let’s start planning for this,” we would likely be in much better shape.

In some countries, like Scandinavia, the attitude to child care is that both men and women can be involved, this puts much less pressure on women in the workplace. Compare that to Australia where most people who take time off to look after their young kids are women. It’s changing in the UK, legally both men and women can take time off for kids, but culturally, it’s still women who do the bulk of the heavy-lifting. And so, vet clinics suffer, as most of the team are women. Oh, and if I hear another person talk about the 'feminisation of the workforce,' I’ll scream! Feminisation is a process that happens to an organism, having more women working, that’s not the same thing!

Other solutions include flexible working hours. As a manager, having an understanding that you have x number of hours a week to fill and just do it however you can. The old mindset is 'I need full-time vets or … nothing,' and when you can’t find full-time vets, you go around in circles.

Are corporates something we need to pay more attention to as well?

If you mean by 'corporate', a group with a large number of hospitals and staff delivering vet services, I don’t have a problem with these groups. They fulfill a need in the market and in the UK they represent about 60% of all clinics now. What I do have an issue with is their ability to influence any conversation with government, because they’re investors, banks and shareholders, not vets, and their motivations are different. This could have profound impacts for the profession, potentially diminishing the role that vets play.

It’s likely that with changing consumer demands, technological improvements, and a focus on running a business effectively, the veterinarians in these businesses will become increasingly marginalised. It’s not out of reasonable thought that vets could have a much more minor role in the future.

The converging trends that are driving this are consumers who want ‘pet care,’ not ‘vet care.’ They’ll get it from anywhere as long as it’s convenient and it works, it’s the Uber model. Then we’ve got the emergence of artificial intelligence, that will provide most of the diagnostic work that vets used to do. Pet stores like Petco in the US are now providing full pet care services which are mostly based around products and non-vet services, and the vet stuff is stuck in there as a small part of the puzzle. And if we look at Norway where it’s illegal to desex your pet, that’s a massive hit to vets in terms of lost revenue.

But instead of complaining about these changes and going around in circles, the answer lies in applying the full-force of our intellect to these issues. By coming together, we’ll find a way through, even if we do have to make some mistakes along the way.

This article originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of the Australian Veterinary Journal (AVJ).

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