By: Debbie Boone, BS, CVPM –Originally published on VitusVet.com.
In 2015 my co-author. Dr. Wendy Hauser, and I published a book on creating “healthy pet plans” based on over 4 years of research and our own personal experience with building pet wellness plans in our practices. In our research, it seemed that practices understood the need of clients to be able to divide their pets care into monthly increments but often struggled to build the plans with a reasonable profit margin or to engage their team in discussing ‘one more thing’ with a client. I get it!
Daily we ask our staff to educate owners on vaccines, parasite prevention, nutrition, behavior, dental care, shampoos, treats and managing illnesses. It is a lot. However, taking the time to educate owners on how they can afford to accept all the items I just listed is time well spent, unless you have an incredibly affluent clientele. If so, congratulations!
I have been working in, and now with, veterinary hospitals since 1985. A lot of change has happened, but one area remains constant…some people struggle to pay our fees. This was true when an exam was $20, and it is still true when exams are $70. As the person always assigned to have the “money talk” I have firsthand knowledge of how difficult these discussions can be.
Serving thousands of veterinary clients in my life I have discovered a simple truth. People WANT to take care of their pets. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t bother to bring them in the door of a practice. But people, in many cases, have no concept of what veterinary care costs leaving us to deal with their “sticker shock”. Wellness plans will never help us overcome issues with big medical cases, but they absolutely can help with preventive care.
The question is, “is the pain worth the gain?”. If done correctly, “YES”.
In today’s market, individually owned practices are forced to compete with corporate competitors. Having wellness plans in place is a good way to differentiate your practice. As someone who loves marketing, having a topic to discuss that makes you stand out is exciting to me. Wellness plans provide us great success stories of pets who “came for routine care and annual bloodwork which allowed us to catch an issue early and solve the problem before it became major”. That is a marketer’s best story! We love to share the “wins”.
Monthly paid plans are also a win for our patients. In my and Wendy’s experience, later confirmed by our research, we found animals came more, received more preventive care and lived better lives. All these results made their owners happier and made our staff have a better work experience. We all hate to see animals suffer with issues we can prevent. After several years of wellness plan implementation, the practice I managed had such high owner compliance we eliminated our isolation ward, our immiticide (used to treat Heartworms) expired before we had any use for it and we never saw Parvo, fleas or internal parasites. This preventive care success was based on a strong team that advocated for patient health. Their education to our clients was supported by an easier way to be compliant. I often wondered if our doctors were “medically” bored because our typical case was the old arthritic dog or the renal failure cat. But that is our goal…very healthy patients who live long happy lives.
The average consumer in the US pays for things they want by monthly installment. Homes, cars, phones, furniture and even massages and gym memberships are paid by monthly fee. Why not pet care? According to a recent Lending Tree Report, “Americans owed more than $50,000 for every man and woman with a credit file in 2018, up 2.6% from the previous year.” People are used to borrowing money in our economy and paying payments. Veterinary medicine needs to follow consumer patterns.
Obviously, there can be some downsides.
In the first couple of months of wellness plan implementation, practice revenue can drop. After all, those annual visits are now being divided out. The good news is cash flow then balances and there is a steady revenue stream. This is very helpful with the seasonality of some areas of the country. Another hurdle – setup. It takes time and thought to create plans that are good for the patient, client and practice. Discounts are not necessary. The “deal’ is paying overtime. A discount intended to encourage client acceptance is fine if the profit margin is kept at an acceptable level. Parallel codes must be created for all the services and a system of “declining availability” of the package services built. Fortunately, many software companies are building these wellness plan tools into their products and there are companies like Veterinary Care Plans (VCP) that will even build them for you. We also want clients to take advantage of all the services in their packages, so they won’t feel cheated. A tool like VitusVet’s text, email and postcard reminder system helps get owners into the practice.
One very important red flag. Your team must dramatically emphasize that wellness plans ARE NOT PET INSURANCE. Over the many years I spent at the front desk it was a common complaint from clients who had a plan from Banfield,” they took their pet in for the “free exam” in their plan and were charged for care”. This is no fault of Banfield – people don’t pay attention to what they sign and only half listen. That is why my and Wendy’s plan components could not be used for sick patient visits. In fact, encouraging clients to purchase pet insurance for disaster care like Trupanion’s policy or Nationwide Pet Insurance‘s Major Medical policy combined with a practice wellness plan could be the perfect combination for pet care financial planning.
If I have convinced you to take the plunge into the monthly paid wellness plan waters I suggest you first read “The Veterinarian’s Guide to Healthy Pet Plans” so you can learn what to do and how to avoid the pitfalls. The book contains a lot of good business tools like cost calculations, time and motion studies, example contracts and communication tools for training your staff to promote and sell the plans.
The New Year approaches and this is a prime time to begin a plan to get better compliance with care for your patients. I wish you all a very Happy Holiday Season and New Year filled with joy and prosperity.