Managing Social Media Behavior at Your Veterinary Practice

Originally Published by Today’s Veterinary Business, December 2018

Use of the internet, particularly social media, can be a double-edged sword, especially in the workplace. On the plus side, it can be a wonderful vehicle for marketing your practice and otherwise connecting with clients and potential clients. On the darker side, what happens when an employee posts content that can have a negative impact on the practice? Should you respond? If so, how should you respond? If a post is offensive, do you have the option of disciplining, even firing, that employee?

Because people in general are so openly sharing thoughts and opinions on social media, it’s not surprising that many experts believe that terminations based on employees posting inappropriate content will continue to increase. Handling this type of issue at your practice can be challenging for your human resource team, given that this is a fairly new type of problem to tackle – but, finding the right approach is crucial, given that just one post has the potential to blow up into a public relations and human resource disaster.

So, how do you respond to, say, a sexist-sounding post on an employee’s page? Although you don’t want to over-react or react emotionally in the moment, and you don’t want to micro-manage your employees, here’s the crux of the situation, distilled into just one sentence. How much potential damage could a particular post have on your practice’s reputation?

What’s important is that you respond fairly, not allowing one person who, say, has a knack of being humorous in his or her posts more leeway for the same type of material that another employee posts in a more serious manner. And, if you choose not to respond, be aware that you’re still really responding – giving the message that you either are fine with the posts or you aren’t concerned with the messaging. And, although a non-response is sometimes the right choice, in today’s business environment, your practice could also be harmed by this more passive approach.

What You Can – and Cannot – Do

At a minimum, you should create a policy about your employees’ use of social media while at work. Be clear about what an employee can and cannot do, and then consistently adhere to that policy. You have the option of banning social media use entirely while on the job. If, of course, someone’s job includes posting for the practice, you’ll have to clearly delineate what is and isn’t permissible during work hours.

However, you cannot ban employees from talking about work-related issues online when they aren’t at work, and they are legally permitted to discuss topics with one another on social media that fall within protected concerted guidelines. Employees can, for example, discuss their dissatisfaction about management style at the practice, how much they’re getting paid and so forth on Facebook or Twitter, as just two examples.

Employees are not protected and can be fired, though, when they discuss these issues online with someone outside of the practice, as this no longer falls into the category of co-worker dialogue about the workplace. They can also be terminated for sharing information that is deemed confidential, including but not limited to trade secrets.

Employees aren’t protected when talking about a workplace topic that isn’t related to employment terms. If someone calls a manager “lazy,” that communication may ultimately be protected. If the employee posts, though, that the manager is “fat,” then that may open the employee up for termination. Or if an employee posts that “my veterinary office is full of ugly people,” this is leaving the realm of employment-related discussions.

It can be difficult to discern when a post crosses the line, so your practice may need help with an attorney experienced in this type of law to determine legalities of particular posts. Note that laws can differ by state so, if your company has practices in more than one of them, you may not be able to make blanket social media policies. Employee protection is especially strong in California, Colorado, Louisiana, New York and North Dakota. Also, be aware that employee protection about social media postings applies to unionized as well as non-unionized employees.

Hate Speech and Protected Classes

You can fire employees who engage in hate speech. Sometimes a post clearly contains hate speech, while at other times, it is borderline. Hate speech is defined as communication that has no purpose or meaning other than expressing a feeling of hatred for a particular group, perhaps focused on race, ethnicity or gender, sexual orientation, national origin, religion and so forth.

When Creating a Social Media Policy for Your Practice

Your policy should contain clear guidelines about what is and isn’t permitted while at work, and also explicitly state that trade secrets and the like must remain confidential. The policy should ask employees to not use social media to post defamatory material that could create a hostile work environment. It is also reasonable to ask them to preface any social media remarks made about the practice online with a disclaimer that you don’t represent your employer’s point of view. It makes good sense to be proactive, too, and run your social media policy past your practice’s attorney.

As a creative solution, some companies are providing social media breaks for their employees throughout the day, perhaps 15 minutes in length, a couple of times per day. This can give everyone a chance to relax and refresh their minds. The goal isn’t to completely restrict your employees from ever using social media (which isn’t do-able, anyhow) but to encourage moderate use in appropriate ways. If you want to use this strategy, outline specifics in your social media policy.

Sharing Your Social Media Policy with Employees

How you share the news about your social media policy can go a long way in determining how well it is received. For example, you could pick a day to get some pizzas for your employees, and use that as an occasion to have a discussion on your social media policy. Explain why having the policy is so important in today’s times, and educate them on the problems that can arise when this form of communication isn’t appropriately used.

As you share the role that social media and its messaging plays in your practice’s culture and values, using a helpful approach is more likely to be successful than leaving the impression that you don’t trust your employees and plan to monitor their every message. And sometimes, by simply educating employees on privacy setting options in social media, you can help to prevent an unpleasant situation.

Share examples of appropriate/acceptable posts and ones that cross the line, and be open to questions, concerns and employee feedback. Getting employees to buy into your policy is a big step forward.

Monitoring Social Media

In general, avoid monitoring a specific employee’s social media accounts to watch for inappropriate comments. If you’re aware of a controversial comment, let that employee know how you plan to investigate and then review the situation with him or her. Then do exactly that.

When you follow up with the employee, get his or her side of the story. In some cases, the comment is so inflammatory that termination may be the only response. Other times, what the employee has to say may provide context that allows for lesser forms of discipline. Remember to be consistent and to follow up appropriately with everyone involved at the practice. As needed, update your social media policy and share it with all of your employees.

To view article on Today’s Veterinary Business, click here.

 

Optimizing Millennial Success

Millennials are on track to be the most educated group of people entering the workforce in history. They have been defined as “ambitious high-achievers” and, as such, it was speculated that employers would appreciate these hard workers entering the workforce. However, the Millennials’ transition into the workforce has not been as smooth as it was predicted, and misunderstandings between groups from different generations have allowed for the untapped potential from Millennials to be wasted. There are various characteristics of Millennials that when understood and properly managed by employers, can create a happy working environment for all generations.

Millennials are commonly defined as people born between 1981 and 2000, although no absolute chronological endpoint has been established for this generation. Currently, they are young adults, falling between the ages of 17-37. They will soon become the largest living generation in America with nearly 75 million constituents.

The Millennial generation has been described as confident, ambitious, independent, innovative, optimistic, adaptable and technologically advanced. Those are potentially positive traits for an employee. However, as it happens with every generation, there has been some friction as the Millennials have entered the workforce. Criticisms are arising, perhaps to the largest inter-generational degree to date, as new perspectives clash with old ones. This is happening, in large part, because Millennial perspectives on information, job security, and leadership tend to be diametrically opposed to those of older, existing workers.

As Baby Boomers and Generation Xers are retiring, Millennials have been entering the workforce at increasing rates, with Millennials recently surpassing Generation Xers and Baby Boomers to become the largest component of the U.S. labor force, comprising 34.6% in 2015. By 2020, they are projected to comprise 46% of the labor force. Competitive employers will therefore be trying to attract and retain Millennial workers to create an edge for their business to succeed, and the best way to attract any demographic group is to understand what they want and then provide it. To understand Millennial motivation, one must look to the big influences on their generation to see what has shaped and helped to define them.  

Millennial Influences

Millennials, just like with preceding generations, have been shaped by the events of the world as they grew up. Events that occur during formative years tend to have a significant impact on people as they mature, with some sociologists saying that people are disproportionately influenced by events that occur between their late teens and mid-twenties. Others believe that the range of influencing years is broader. Most agree that by their late twenties and early thirties, people become more set in their beliefs. By this definition, the big influencers for the Millennial generation would include helicopter parents, digital media, terrorist attacks, and economic recessions, including the burst of the dot-com bubble and the subprime mortgage crisis.

Helicopter Parents

Millennials were often raised by parents who scheduled everything for them. Their schedules outside of school were frequently packed with everything from sports practice to music lessons. Many parents of Millennials had no trouble petitioning a coach for more playing time or a teacher for a better grade for their child, making Millennials a more micromanaged generation. Notably, this packed schedule often involved group activities, frequently making Millennials great team players. Plus, Millennials are often very close with their parents and rely upon them as a source of advice and wisdom.

On top of their highly involved parents praising them, Millennials often received trophies for participation in their activities. This has fostered expectations that they deserve an award simply for showing up. On the plus side, Millennials want to continue receiving these awards, which can help them to focus on developing the talents and skills that will help them win coveted awards. This means they are often setting new challenges for themselves, which could be very useful in the workplace if properly harnessed. However, this has also led many Millennials to believe they are unduly special; 54% of them believe the workplace should adapt to them and it is therefore unnecessary for them to conform to company culture.

In summary, the helicopter parent influence on Millennials shaped them to be team oriented, externally motivated and confident, and has also led many of them to believe they are “special.”

Digital Media

Millennials were the first generation to grow up surrounded by the instant gratification technology of digital media. Because technology was integrated into so many aspects of their lives, from cell phones to IMs to personal computers, they are technologically savvy. They are therefore also experts at multitasking and have become accustomed to getting what they want, such as answers to questions, when they want it. Millennials also witnessed the birth of social media, which has allowed the world to shrink exponentially; through improved access, Millennials are exposed to more ideas, cultures and opinions. This has made them more open-minded and more networked than past generations. Having access to many opinions with the click of a button has also helped to shape this generation into a collaborative group.

The digital media influence has shaped Millennials to be team oriented as well as technologically savvy, open-minded, globally conscious, multitaskers and networked.

Terrorist Attacks

A bulk of this generation was still in school at the time of the 9/11 attacks, and they experienced an increase in helicopter parenting following this event. This fostered the generations’ dependence on technology, with personal cell phones being given to children so parents could contact them at any time.  Due to close ties with their parents, Millennials also experienced a reinforcement in the value of a sense of community.

During this character-forming time in the Millennials’ youth, they witnessed a senseless act of violence that demonstrated the fragility of human life. Thus, a sense of urgency seems to permeate this generation. They live their lives with borderline-delusional courage, unconventional work ethics and a ferocious need to customize their futures because they watched as other futures were cut short. They are therefore driven by their passions more than past generations and live more in the moment because of these events. This influence also helped to mold Millennials to be family oriented and passionate about making a difference.

Recessions

The 1990s were a time of steady economic growth and expansion; the mid-to-late 1990s saw optimistic entrepreneurs pursing new internet ventures, influenced by successes such as eBay and Amazon. Many internet companies called “dot-coms” were launched, and investors financed these start-ups. However, these ventures were not as profitable as originally assumed and many of the companies crashed, leading to a stock market crash. During the final decades of the 20th century, 30 million U.S. workers were laid off. For the Millennials, this meant seeing their parents lose their jobs. They were imprinted as children by a period of diminished job security and weakening ties between the employer and the employee. Company loyalty did not mean as much as it once had.

After seeing their parents bear the brunt of the dot-coms, Millennials experienced a recession themselves just as they were entering the workforce. This “Great Recession” lasted from 2007 to 2010, in large part because of mortgage credit being offered to subprime borrowers. When these borrowers defaulted on their loans, the housing market crashed, which affected the overall economy. It decreased wealth and consumer spending, lowered construction, limited the ability of firms to lend money, and limited the funds firms could raise.

The group of people who were affected most by this crisis were the Millennials who were just entering the workforce, particularly the graduating class of 2008. They had trouble finding jobs, much less jobs with high enough wages to offset their massive student debt. This caused many young adults to postpone major adult milestones such as marriage, or the purchase of their own car or home.

Even several years after the recession, Millennials are still having some difficulty finding jobs. Statistics from Pew Research indicate that 25-34-year-olds made up 48% of the unemployed population in 2015. Additionally, it has been harder for Millennials to access credit, which has caused some of them to settle for jobs they don’t want, with people from this generation frequently looking for new potential employment opportunities. They have seen layoffs or been in a position where they themselves could not find a job. Thus, many have responded with the mindset that they will not let the same things happen to them or are determined not to have them happen again; they are therefore constantly looking ahead.

These economic recessions made Millennials ambitious and stressed, and they have contributed to this generation’s external motivation.

Tips for Optimizing Success Based on Millennial Traits

Based on the major influences of the times, certain traits within Millennials arose that shape their motivation. These traits give insight as to what is important to Millennials, and thus, how they can be managed and fostered in the workplace to optimize success. Millennials are team oriented, family oriented, externally motivated, “special,” confident, ambitious, technologically savvy, open-minded, globally conscious, networked, multitaskers, passionate about making a difference, and stressed. Here are a few ways you can harness these traits to optimize workplace success.

Millennials are all about work and life. Nearly six in 10 (57%) of them say work-life balance and personal well-being in a job are “very important” to them.  Not surprisingly, then, lack of flexibility was cited among the top reasons Millennials quit jobs. And nearly 40 percent of young workers, male or female, in the United States are so unhappy with the lack of paid parental-leave policies that they say they would be willing to move to another country.

So, what options can you offer Millennials? Can you offer flexible scheduling, including but not limited to telecommuting elements? What is your parental leave policy? Should you take a second look at what you offer? When you talk to the Millennials at your practice, what options do they say are important to them?

Millennials prefer to work in teams, in part because they perceive group-based work to be more fun, but also because they like to avoid risk. Millennials also report that working and interacting with other members of a team makes work more pleasurable. Millennial workers like to be actively involved and fully committed to whatever projects they take on, and they contribute their best efforts to the organization when their work is performed in a collaborative workgroup or team.

What team structures do you have in place at your practice? Have you sat down with your employees to find out ways in which they would like more teamwork to exist? What changes can you make now? In the future?

Because they fear risk, knowing that health insurance is available and affordable is important to this generation. What are you able to provide them? Are there voluntary benefits you can offer them? Because this is a generation with significant student debt, increasing numbers of companies are offering loan repayment assistance. Have you investigated that option?

Millennials appreciate the opportunity to learn and grow. Have you sat down with them to talk about promotion possibilities and the best way to get the education and training needed for a desired promotion?

These are just some of the ways in which you can optimize Millennial performance at work and retain your best employees. It’s important, too, to avoid pigeon-holing any employee, assuming you know what someone wants because of the year of his or her birth. For employees of any age or generation, the way you can learn the most about their desires, fears, needs and wants is open and honest communication. Set aside time to learn more about your employees as individuals and help them with their unique career paths – and you will all benefit.

Key Factors to Consider in Appraisals and Assessing Practice Value

Written By:David McCormick, MS  Simmons Mid-Atlantic & Great Lakes
Stephanie McGinness, DVM Candidate, 2012

What are the key factors you should consider when assessing practice value?  Profitability and appraisals are both important parts of the process and the following is a list of guidelines and topics to help guide your future research.

 

Practice Value:

  • Profits drive the value of a practice. They are the return on owning the practice and it is the return that is being purchased.  The greater the return, the greater the value. Practices have appraised for anywhere from 110% to 15% of gross revenue.
  • “Profits” are what you would get if you owned the practice only – meaning you don’t work there and you don’t own the real estate (i.e., fair market compensation for your veterinary work, fair market rent and clean financials).
  • If a practice is financially healthy, it will have profitability in the range of 14-18% of revenues.
  • If a practice is financially healthy (14-18% profitability) then it will probably have a value that will end up being between 55% to 80% of revenue.
  • Asking what a practice will go for is like asking what the cost of surgery is; it is such a broad range that it’s tough to be accurate. The recent average of a practice sold by Simmons has a value of roughly 72%, however, they’ve been sold in a range from 30% to 95% and there’s even one on the market now at 110% that will close this month (June 2011).
  • The average practice these days has a profitability in the 8-11% range and thus is likely has a value that will end up being between 30% and 50% of gross revenues (if that).
  • Practice values in general have been decreasing. There’s greater pressure on profitability: increased support staff costs, increasing benefit costs, higher-end pharmaceuticals that can’t be marked up as much, etc.
  • The economy has also impacted values. If the practice was managing for revenues instead of profitability then typically the revenues *and* the profitability took a hit. Profits go down – so does the practice value.

Assessing Profitability & Practice Appraisals

  • It is best to have your practice appraised every 3-5 years for management and planning purposes. If the value is low, the profits were low.  If the profits are low it has to be a revenue and/or expense issue and we can help identify the problem(s).  Fixing the profitability improves the practice’s cash flow, increases the practice profitability and its financial health, and increases the overall practice value.
  • An appraisal is an opinion of value – and anyone can give you “an opinion”. These are big decisions.  If you want a good opinion you need to know where it’s coming from and select a qualified veterinary appraiser.
  • To assess a potential appraiser, request veterinary references and inquire about their experience level (particularly in the veterinary industry), accreditation and credentials (i.e. ASA, CBA, CVA, AVA, AIBA) with the understanding that they don’t guarantee competency, and compare their report to those prepared for you by previous appraisers to assess their report writing competence.
  • Any decision on value should be defendable and is based on the appraiser’s judgment, the financial analysis, and the conditions in the market for that area (assuming here that the goal is fair market value).
  • Free resources for estimating your practice profitability are available on the NCVEI.org website. Find the Profitability Estimator under the Benchmarking tools.  It was developed by the Veterinary Valuation Resource Council (VVRC) and is free.  It helps you go from the practice tax return to an estimate of your true practice profitability.  This is a similar practice to what we do in the No Lo Workshops hosted by VVRC at the major conferences.
  • If you’d like more in depth information, please visit the VetPartners website at www.avpmca.org

14 Issues Your Veterinary Practice Partnership Documents Should (Have) Address(ed)

What happens when you die? Will your heirs receive a fair price, or any price for your investment in the practice? Will they remain locked into that investment forever? Will your heirs collect profits from the practice? What if the other partner (who is getting paid under his practice employment contract) has voting control and decides not to distribute profits?

If your heirs are to be bought out, who sets the purchase price? How and by whom is it paid? If part of the purchase price is paid with a promissory note, is same secured? How? What if the practice is not profitable enough to pay the note?

What happens when your partner dies? Your deceased partner’s heirs are now your new partners.

Barring a fluke, your new partners will not be veterinarians. Does your State permit non-veterinarian practice owners?  Will they want to be bought out or stay and collect profits from the practice?  (Without contributing to profit generation of course.)  If the deceased partner was a large shareholder, or the majority interest holder, the heirs will also inherit your deceased partner’s voting rights.  Do you want to share practice management with, or be managed by, such persons?  What if the heirs squabble among themselves, leading to management paralysis and/or litigation? Do you fancy having the practice run by a court-appointed receiver?

If the heirs are to be bought out, who determines the purchase price? How and by whom is it paid? If there’s a note, is it secured? How?

What if you are permanently disabled? Will you receive a fair price, or any price for your investment in the practice? Will you remain locked into your investment forever? Will you collect profits from the practice? What if the remaining partner decides not to distribute profits?

If you are to be bought out, who sets the purchase price? By whom and how is it paid? If there’s a note, is it secured? How?

What if your partner is permanently disabled? Will your disabled partner want to be bought out or stay and collect practice profits (without generating any of same)? A disabled partner’s interests will be different then yours, so if he was the managing and/or majority partner, how will he run the practice? Will he be able to run the practice? What if the disabled partner is mentally disabled?

If your disabled partner is to be bought out, who determines the purchase price? How and by whom is it paid? If there’s a note, is it secured? How?

What if your partner goes nuts? You don’t want a mentally unstable person practicing veterinary medicine. But if such partner is the majority partner you can’t fire him, because he, not you, controls the practice entity. The same problem arises for equal partners. Sure your mentally disabled partner could voluntarily remove himself, but can you rely on that? What if the majority partner has a guardian? How will the guardian run the practice? What if the majority partner or guardian fires you?

What if your partner should be fired as veterinarian-employee? Suppose your partner becomes lazy or his child becomes ill and decides to work significantly less hours or stop working altogether. Suppose your partner becomes a substance abuser and consequently unfit to practice veterinary medicine. Or he steals from the practice. Or he harasses employees and/or abuses clients and/or patients.  The foregoing would be grounds for terminating a veterinarian employee.  But if your partner is the majority or an equal partner you can’t fire him (as explained in the preceding paragraph).

What if you no longer get along? Should the practice be dissolved? If not, who should leave? At what price should the departing partner be bought out? How and by whom is it paid? If there’s a note, is it secured? How?

In a 50/50 practice how are disagreements handled? What happens when each party has equal voting/management rights and a serious disagreement arises? How will the resulting deadlock be resolved?

What if your partner wants to drop out, buy a boat and sail around the world? Should your partner be permitted to withdraw? If not, how do you keep your partner from just resigning as an employee (in light of the constitutional prohibition of involuntary servitude)?

What if your ex-partner discovers he’s chronically sea-sick and comes back to set up a veterinary practice next store (using the client list he kept when he left)?

If a partner is permitted to withdraw, who determines the purchase price? By whom and how is it paid? If there’s a note, is it secured?  How?

What if your partner divorces? If the divorced spouse has, or is awarded, a portion of your partner’s practice equity interest, the divorced spouse becomes a partner. Ménages à trois make great literature and film themes but ALWAYS end badly.

What if your partner goes bankrupt? Do you fancy your partner’s creditor as your new partner? It won’t be fun to have a bank running, or having a say in running, the practice. Worse, the bank likely will want to sell your partner’s share to a competitor. 

Who’s got the land? The small animal practice’s most valuable asset is its location, because most clients won’t travel far for pet treatment. As zoning restrictions get ever tighter, good practice locations become ever rarer (and more expensive). If, as is frequently the case, one partner owns the practice premises, what happens when he dies, is disabled, withdraws, resigns, divorces and/or goes bankrupt?

What if another veterinarian wants to buy your partner’s interest in the practice? Should your partner be allowed to sell without your approval?  Should you have a right of first offer?  A right of first refusal?

IF YOUR PARTNER IS NOT YOUR RETIREMENT PLAN, THEN WHO IS? If you don’t have a firm  agreement with your partner to sell your practice interest to him (or someone else) upon your retirement, then how are you going to retire using your investment in the practice as your nest egg?  What if both partners want to retire at the same time?

Road Map to Starting a Mobile Practice: Unique Benefits and Challenges

Have you ever looked out your clinic window on a nice day and wished you could smuggle yourself outside for just an hour? Does it sometimes feel like moving a mountain to organize an hour to go to a doctor’s appointment? Who doesn’t want more time away from the office or crowded hospital? Who wouldn’t prefer having more ability to make their own decisions when it comes to work schedules and how your practice conducts its business? Flexibility and getting away from the office are just two reasons why a growing number of veterinarians are making the jump to mobile practice, in some cases leaving the traditional brick-and-mortar practice behind entirely. Perhaps the rise of corporate consolidation, compassion fatigue and the need for greater work-life balance are additional factors driving a sub-set of the profession to consider a different way.

Hitting the road as a mobile practitioner can have a number of benefits but, like everything else, there are also downsides to consider: gas prices, lower revenues, longer days and, of course, traffic! Still, the practice model continues to expand, with a growing number of small animal veterinarians making the switch to a model previously dominated by large animal practitioners. This article will explore some of the complex issues and logistics – along with advantages and disadvantages – that come with this practice model. That’s because, when considering whether mobile practice is the right next step in your career, or if it’s a viable service to add to your existing practice, it’s important to delve beyond the obvious. Now that you’re daydreaming of hitting the road, let’s examine things on a deeper level.

Making the Finances Work

The decision to go mobile must make financial sense. Indeed, this is the barrier most veterinarians see as a road block. Mobile practice, however, is not unlike any other business where viability and profitability come down to expense and revenue. To see if your vision can become a reality, first create a detailed business plan.

Expenses

A recent article in Veterinary Practice News found the cost of starting a stationary small animal clinic to be approximately $1,000,000 (including most standard equipment). However, a mobile clinic startup cost was estimated to be roughly $250,000, a quarter of the price. Obviously, the equipment you choose, real estate pricing and the scope of your practice all have a significant bearing on the initial startup costs, but there is no denying mobile has a much smaller buy-in. Today’s vet school graduates are likely to have upwards of $135,000 of debt associated with their education, according to recent AVMA data, making investing in a mobile practice seem a more practical choice. As a mobile practitioner, your investment is not subject to all the forces that affect a real estate holding. With brick and mortar, if the neighborhood takes a turn for the worse or you have a dispute with a neighbor, you’re locked in for the long haul. As a mobile clinic, though, you are at the whim of gas prices. Currently gas prices are $2.09/gallon, a significant expense in a vehicle likely to get poor mileage per gallon – and fluctuations in gas prices will also include upward ones, adding to the expense.

Will you be a small, large or mixed animal practice? What are the needs of your intended service area? Understanding your market and where your revenue streams are likely to come from will determine what set up is best for you. Many would argue that having a 26-foot vehicle may not make sense if you only intend to see mostly horses. However, if you are a small animal practitioner and plan to provide a standard of care that is similar to stationary practices, bigger may be better. You may wish buy a larger vehicle to accommodate a dental unit, x-ray equipment and surgical suite. Several companies offer ranges of options for veterinarians from built-ins for trucks and SUVs to vehicles with more square footage than your apartment in vet school. Keep in mind that, as a small animal practitioner, what you gain in fuel efficiency (cost) with an SUV versus 26-footer, you may lose in revenue, having to refer to local practices for anesthetic procedures, radiographs and so forth.

The average monthly expenses as reported in a survey conducted by LaBoit, Inc., a mobile unit manufacturer, were estimated at $6,050 to include vehicle payments, service of vehicle, fuel costs, insurance, supplies, cell line, advertising, pharmacy and professional services. That’s a yearly cost of roughly $72,600. However, this estimated cost does not factor in the most significant expense of any hospital budget: staff salary (including yourself) and benefits. Most mobile practitioners choose to have an assistant to help answer calls, schedule appointments, maintain the vehicle, and various other tasks that work to increase practice efficiency and decrease veterinary exhaustion. As a start, consider two salaries: a veterinarian (you) and a technician. The national median salary for a veterinarian is $87,590 and, for a technician, the average salary is $31,070. To more closely approximate actual cost per employee, it is recommended to multiply salaries by a factor of 1.5 to include benefits and other employer costs. Then there are practice insurance policies, marketing, taxes, accountant fees and possibly fees for a payroll service.

On the upside, mobile practices have the added perks of no property taxes and no rent! Purchase of larger veterinary mobile units comes with the benefit of free marketing as you are essentially driving a billboard around all day. If the schedule is open, strategic parking can result in high visibility and real bang-for-the-buck marketing.

Revenue

Territory

How wide of an area will you cover? This is paramount when establishing your business plan. If you plan to cover a large swath of a county, you’d better have either a fuel efficient vehicle and/or a higher than average client transaction to counter the simple fact that a larger area means more transit time. Maybe you can serve a large area but only visit the northern part of the county on Mondays and Wednesdays, and book the southern part on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Not unlike your traditional stationary clinic, there must be sufficient population to not only support but to grow the practice over time. The beauty of mobile practice, though, is that you can go where the clients are and you have the freedom to refine your territory for maximum efficiency.

House-call Fees

According to an informal survey of mobile practitioners who purchased units from LaBoit, Inc., the average house call fee was $50. It should be noted that this fee is assessed to clients for your driving to them and the convenience that provides. Some practitioners develop a stratified house call fee schedule based on the amount of miles a call would be from a central location on a map.

House call fees may highlight another difference between large animal and small animal mobile clientele. A large animal client may view you driving to them as a necessity, not a convenience, making a $50 to $60 fee unpalatable to some. If you are planning to offer small animal service, understand that the cost of the practice model must be shifted to the clients, so be sure the market you serve would tolerate the $50-$60 more per transaction that is necessary to offset the cost of keeping gas in the tank.

Let’s do some math:

Days of operation X average transactions X number of clients per day X weeks in a year = average gross revenue

If we fill in numbers reported in the LaBoit survey, we get:

5 days/week X $250 average transaction X 5 clients/day X 50 weeks/year = $312,000

While this number may be underwhelming when you look at revenue from a multi-doctor stationary practice, the key is of course to consider the other factor in determining profit: cost.

$312,000 revenue – 250,590 cost = $61,410 profit

You must also have a realistic financial project that accounts for building a client base from zero. If your projections are accurate and the business is able to stick to the budget in your business plan, you should have some profit left to reinvest in your practice. Maybe you purchase a new piece of equipment, invest in marketing or reinvest in staff.

Form a Business Entity

The rules and tax benefits that govern what type of business entity you may wish to form varies from state to state. In some states – California, for example – veterinarians are not allowed to operate as a limited liability company (LLC) or a limited liability partnership (LLP). As such, California veterinarians form entities such as a sole proprietorship, partnership or corporation, under which they conduct business. Forming a corporation can protect its owner(s) or shareholders from being personally liable for any corporation obligations, liabilities and/or debts. The two main flavors of corporations are “C” and “S” corporations. With an “S” corporation, in the event of practice sale, there is only one tax levied upon the sale, whereas with a “C” corporation the sale is double taxed.  For these reasons, the great majority of veterinarians choose to form “S” rather than “C” corporations. It is imperative to seek out the advice of a knowledgeable corporate accountant on which business entity is best for you.

Financing the Operation

Veterinarians often need to seek out loans to finance this operation. This is when a well laid out business plan can really help, as it provides the critical information lenders need to assess the viability of your business and your ability to pay them back. If you have less than 20% of the total cost in your own funds to contribute, you’ll likely need an SBA lender. Depending on your personal financial profile, credit history and business experience, the amounts, rates and terms will vary. In addition to financing through veterinary lenders, (Live Oak, B of A, Wells Fargo), many of the companies that manufacture mobile veterinary vehicles have financing programs in place. You can also investigate local lenders and private investors. It’s important to shop around for the best interest rates and terms for your loan to help bolster the short and long term financial projections. LaBoit, Inc., Dodgen, Bowie, Magnum and Faber are the major players serving the mobile vet market with custom built vehicles.

Other Startup Costs

Initial supply orders can be a heavy upfront cost in any startup, but luckily many vendors offer discounts and payment plans that help with cash flow early on. Regardless of the size and scope of your mobile practice, your initial order will be a fraction of that expected in most stationary clinics. A survey of mobile veterinarians published in DVM360 listed the equipment considered essential to mobile veterinarians, which included: digital scale, portable x-ray machine, portable ultrasound machine, centrifuge and dental equipment. Some of these may come with your custom built unit and be included in the price, while others will need to be separately financed. As a rule of thumb, a startup practice should be able to generate a positive cash flow by about the sixth month.

Insurance, Permits and Paperwork

The AVMA PLIT website has a list of insurance policies packaged for mobile practitioners. For the most part, policies such as workers compensation and employment practices liability are similar to those recommended in stationary practice. Having business/commercial auto insurance is essential in protecting your investments and allowing company employees to drive the vehicle. A general business owner (BOP) policy will protect personal business property in your home, vehicle and temporary off-premise sites like client’s homes. A BOP policy will also cover general liabilities not covered in auto, malpractice or employer coverage.

A business license, DEA license, current state veterinary license and, in some states, controlled drug license are required for mobile practices. A veterinary premise permit may be required, depending upon the state you intend on practicing in: for example, California, Florida and Arizona, among others. The laws governing DEA licensing and veterinary medicine are often a bit gray. Some hospitals will have one DEA license under which associates prescribe drugs within the practice. In the case of mobile practice, you will either be a solo practitioner or likely to not always be present when an associate prescribes/uses drugs, making it a necessity for each DVM to have a DEA license.

Taxes can be a significant drain on a small startup business. If you use your vet-mobile for a combination of personal and business use, then your mileage can be tax deductible. If you use the vehicle for business uses only, then you would not claim mileage but, rather, depreciation. Certain other expenses associated with mobile practice may be deductible, as well, such as gas and maintenance. Understanding tax benefits can be challenging and many veterinary practice owners rely on advice from their tax accountants.

Lifestyle

The appeal of being out of the hospital and owning your own practice is obvious and many mobile practitioners list one or both of these two lifestyle perks as being reasons to make the leap into mobile practice. However, there are several drawbacks to the mobile lifestyle you should consider. To serve enough clients per day to generate healthy revenue, it may be necessary to work long days or maybe six days per week. Ultimately this will depend on your fee schedule and the area you plan on servicing, but by the nature of having to drive to your clients, your efficiency will suffer.

Mobile practice can also be more physically and mentally demanding for some. Most stationary practices will offer 20- to 30-minute appointments, of which you may interact with the client for 10 to 20 minutes. In mobile practice, your appointments general run much longer (30 to 60 minutes), hence the appeal for many clients. This means you must be “on”: personable, engaged and social for up to an hour at a time with each client. If you find it difficult to make small talk and general conversation with clients, mobile practice is not for you. As a mobile practitioner, you may be called to place a catheter, draw blood, clean kennels and restrain patients for radiographs, whether or not you choose to have an assistant. Then there’s the traffic and the exhaustion of driving a huge vehicle around town, navigating narrow streets or deciding whether or not your truck will get stuck on that dirt road up ahead. Driving, jumping in and out of a truck, and carrying equipment are all part of the gig that can further contribute to an already physically demanding job, and result in exhaustion.

Having said all that, as a former mobile practitioner technician, I can tell you there is something that feels alluringly right about playing fetch with your patient for 10 minutes after catching them up on their vaccines or examining the cat from hell on the kitchen table without so much as a flick of the tail.

Market Outlook

According to recent Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the projected veterinarian employment growth rate is healthy, expecting to grow by 9% between 2014 and 20245. This rate is slightly above average expected growth for all occupations (7%), so this is the good news. The bad news is that, for young vets looking for opportunities to own a practice, inventory is limited and continues to decrease each year. With corporate consolidations up to about ten percent of the practices, the independent practitioner is forced to compete with juggernauts.

Mobile service, though, can offer clients a stark contrast to the corporate model and elevate service to a new level. Mobile care is a boutique offering with highly individualized personal care, provided by one or two faces. The mobile model may just be the antidote for corporate consolidation in some areas already dominated by giants and the best option for ownership for the next generation of entrepreneurs. The question remains: how is the market expected to grow for mobile service? A 2002 TIME magazine article noted a steadily growing number of veterinarians who are offering house calls or opening mobile services, with membership in the American Association of Housecall Veterinarians (AAHV) increasing 150% compared to the past decade. LaBoit, Inc., at that time, reported seeing sales increase 40% over each of the past five years. Unfortunately, there is little current published data specific to mobile practice, but that does not mean we can’t assess clients demand for this service.

In 2015, it became official: the millennials have taken over. That is, a Pew research poll indicates millennials are now the largest living generation. What does this have to do with mobile practice, you may ask? A recent study conducted by Trone Brand Energy published in DVM360 shows that 59% of millennials say their veterinarian takes the time to know them, compared with 64% of boomers. The study shows that millennials are less likely to think their veterinarians are very accessible (47%) compared to boomers (78%). Taken together, this suggests that this demographic is looking for accessibility and desires a more personal relationship with their veterinarian to develop a bond of trust.

Another Pew poll found that more than half (53%) of all working parents with children under 18 say it’s very difficult to balance job responsibility with responsibilities to the family. Mobile practice offers a solution. You can have your family pets’ health care needs met while you make dinner or when the new baby goes down for a nap. The client is waiting at home for their appointment and can work, do laundry or cook while they wait. Here, a choice no longer has to be made between the responsibilities to their pets’ health and life’s demands. Is it worth an extra $50 to a mother with three kids to get the two dogs and the cat a medical visit without having to load everyone up into the minivan? Many families would say: absolutely.

Furthermore, since the advent of the internet and the tremendous access to information, today’s client is often more knowledgeable. Clients feel empowered and seek more of a role in the partnership relationship they share with their veterinarians. Emphasis is on the word relationship. Clients seek transparency and active engagement in their pets’ health care. Mobile care offers more of an opportunity to build relationships with owners and to educate them. Mobile service is uniquely suited to provide transparency on both sides of the exam table. When clients can watch you work, they feel involved and can have a greater appreciation for the service you provide.

AVMA published the Bayer Veterinary Usage Study in 2011 that examined the industry’s declining revenues and number of visits (usage). The study cited what they called “feline resistance,” in which data indicated that because many cats hate being loaded into carriers for transport to the vet, 40% of them had not been to the veterinarian within the past year, as compared with 15% of dogs. Owners reported that their cats show signs of stress during veterinary visits, which lead to deferred trips. Many cat owners expressed a desire to avoid the difficulties and unpleasantness associated with bringing their cat to the veterinarian. Perhaps “feline resistance” explains why only 83% of cat owners who responded to the survey said their animal had a primary veterinary clinic, compared with 91% of dog owners. Mobile practice can help bridge this gap by alleviating the unpleasantness, providing health care to the family cat all while tapping into a sizable new revenue stream. The same concept likely also applies to fractious dogs or multi-pet households who under-utilize veterinary care simply due to stress involved with taking their pets in for an appointment.

Conclusion:

Getting into the mobile veterinary business is a creative opportunity that offers unique rewards, benefits and opportunities, along with challenges, to practice the profession you love in a whole new way. Mobile practice has a growing role to play in the profession and may represent the most viable path to ownership for the younger generation of veterinarians. Before you hit the open road, though, make sure you’ve got the right road map to guide you.