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Urgent Care is the Next Frontier in Vet Med

A lot has changed since I started in the veterinary profession 17 years ago. I’ve heard that the breadth of medical knowledge now doubles every three years (it used to be five). Recently more and more veterinary practices have switched from traditional x-ray equipment to digital imaging. Computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) have become the standards of care in referral hospitals. Now it’s not uncommon for a pet owner to spend thousands of dollars on orthopedic surgery for their animal. As technology and expertise have progressed in vet med so have the costs associated with care.

On the whole, veterinary medicine is still a tremendous value compared to other healthcare industries. We sometimes overlook this fact because we are so accustomed to employer-subsidized health insurance, doctor co-pays, and Medicare. Consider that the cash price of a vasectomy for a healthy male ranges from $1000 to $2000, while the cost of neutering a healthy dog (a more intensive procedure requiring general anesthesia) is $200-$400 in private practice. The price is even lower at a low-cost spay/neuter clinic!

The veterinary profession is in a precarious financial position. The average student debt in 2013 was more than $160,000 while the average starting salary was about $67,000. The debt numbers have been steadily rising for two decades while the salaries in the last ten years have stagnated. In response to this downward spiral, an increasing number of veterinary students are choosing to pursue advanced post-doctoral training because it offers greater financial compensation. Have you noticed how many veterinary referral hospitals have opened recently? It’s because there are now a whole lot more board-certified specialists in the profession: internal medicine, cardiology, neurology, oncology, ophthalmology, dermatology, surgery, and more.

At my own private practice outside Charlotte, NC, we can choose from at least five regional specialty veterinary hospitals when advanced care is indicated. Most facilities like these also offer 24-hour emergency and critical care. They are, for all intents and purposes, analogous to human hospitals complete with state-of-the-art emergency rooms. If your pet becomes sick or injured, and your primary care veterinarian isn’t open, then practices of this magnitude can handle anything from a broken toenail to an emergency c-section. But this comprehensive practice model comes with several significant drawbacks.

First, client waiting times at the vet ER tend to be measured in hours rather than minutes. Makes sense, right? If a hit-by-car patient is rushed in, the dog with an ear infection has to wait. Second, the cost of care is usually double and sometimes triple what you might expect to pay at your regular vet. Think about it: most practices average 3 to 5 support staff for each doctor, so a large 24-hour specialty practice might have 50 to 100 employees. Add to that rent, equipment costs, cost of goods sold, higher doctor salaries, and utilities, and you are talking about a multi-million-dollar enterprise. Third, while these practices are becoming more ubiquitous it is usually a 20-minute drive or more to get there. Your primary care veterinarian is often right around the corner. Finally, expertise is relative. A skilled emergency veterinarian is often the best choice for treating a patient in shock because she does it all the time and has undergone extensive training. Routine, minor illnesses and injuries may be handled more effectively and efficiently by a general practitioner who treats these maladies regularly.

Enter the role of urgent care. Human hospitals are literally begging patients not to come to the ER for non-emergency medical problems. Why do we look at it differently in veterinary medicine? A walk-in urgent care center offers speedy, effective care in a convenient location at a significantly lower cost to the consumer. Plus it is staffed with trained professionals who do it all the time! An urgent care clinic is cheaper to build, maintain, and staff than a traditional hospital. It offers young veterinarians a new employment avenue at a competitive salary. For entrepreneurial practitioners with a mountain of student debt, it is a novel small business model with a lower entry price than a traditional practice. In my opinion, small, local, walk-in urgent care vet clinics are the next notable advancement in the profession.

The future is now.