Give me Starbucks or give me death - corporate vet medicine redux
The vet community is abuzz with a fresh round of hand-wringing over the issue of corporate vet medicine. Actually, the issue of Starbucks-style vet medicine has never really gone away—not since PetSmart started stocking vets along with pet foods and VCA went public. But I’ve been hearing more about it lately so it seems the issue is nearing another crescendo among our ranks.
That’s partly because vet medicine is poised to undergo big structural changes in the coming decade. As baby boomer vets start hanging up their hats and cashing out, the question is…who are they going to sell to? Most likely to the highest bidder, right? What if the highest bidder is Banfield, VCA or another new heavy-hitter flush with cash and a penchant for practice shopping?
I certainly don’t blame my fellow vets for following the money. After all, the media’s awash with gloom and doom on the issue of retirement planning. I’d take bigger money over sentiment, too, if I were scared I’d end up in a squalid nursing home because I sold out for $50K less to my upstart associate instead of the big guys.
Younger vets burdened with debt are less likely to qualify for the loans required to compete with large corporations. We’re also more likely to look to the lifestyle ease that comes with not having to scrimp, save and suffer for years so we can own our very own place.
Indeed, our generation of vets is different than the one before us. “Slackers,” they call us, referring to our interest in having a more balanced life. “Feminized,” they claim, citing the time off women need to care for their children. We’re bringing the profession down with our compromised work-ethic and making it easy for the behemoths to knock down our doors.
Hence the Walgreenification of the veterinary medicine. I, for one, don’t want to end up practicing my profession as pharmacists now do under fluorescent lights and surveillance cameras within the sprawling networks of modern-day cookie-cutter pharmacies. Yet I don’t see that single-vet practice was that great an alternative, either.
“Single-man” practices, as they’re still known (that moniker speaks volumes about the culture of vet medicine in years past), are stressful, hard-core business ventures that were easier when vet medicine was more rural and pricey suburban retail rents weren’t so high. Add in the financial condition of recent grads and you get the picture. Conditions back then were acceptable for a young upstart to make his name in an area now clepped into the prime of suburbia.
Even so, many vets endured the stress of making a business out of a profession at a relatively young age. They also suffered more from sole providership (spouses didn’t always work). High suicide rates, substance abuse and
More importantly, they also often lacked the mentorship and collegiality of working in a group practice—a cultural legacy that’s still in evidence today with our reputation as maverick, self-starters and fiercely self-sufficient James Herriot types
The flip-side of independence is that many of us vets don’t always know how to get along. The cat-herding axiom is endemically applicable to our group dynamics. But that’s changing as vets come out of school with fewer choices for so-called single-man endeavors.
And that’s what makes corporate medicine easier to sell to vets. It’s not just the hours. It’s not just the loans. It’s not just the mounting cultural bias towards working to live rather than living to work. It’s not just the influx of women needing time to raise families. It’s not just the shift from rural to suburban outlook. It’s also the increasing availability of a job that will meet these goals at the time we need them and the impact this kind of experience has on the population of vets at large.
After all, we’re taught in schools to work as a team and it’s infinitely more comfortable to continue in that setting when we graduate. We’re taught in schools that multi-vet practice makes for better medicine, too. And it does.
No doubt we’re at a crossroads in shaping what veterinary practice will look like in decades to come. I, for one, don’t like the corporate models I’ve worked for (two VCA hospitals) or dealt with (Banfields). I’m sure there are excellent hospitals withn their systems but that’s not the norm—at least not in my area (I’m getting myself into hot water here).
I’d rather see vet medicine move into the communal, independent model that seems to be working for dentists and physicians (they’ve largely rejected the corporate models and they have even more reason to participate given the mess that is the US healthcare system). I like the idea of small hospitals merging and growing organically with more collegiality, slightly less independence, increased professional satisfaction, higher compensation, shared risks and more flexible schedules.
If all this talk of corporations and vet medicine sounds alien or inapplicable to you, consider the implications of the current system of corporate medicine: more vet turnover, less control, less pay and fewer personal rewards. Now think of how that might impact your pets' care. Sure, Starbucks does what it does very well, but vet medicine is not like making coffee to order with a bright smile and a green apron.