Does it matter WHO owns your favorite veterinary practice?
In Florida, where I live, a veterinary practice may be owned by anyone––a veterinarian, a corporation of non-veterinarian investors, a veterinary technician, an animal welfare organization...indeed, by anyone who cares to set up shop and hire a veterinarian.
In many other states, however, such rules are not in play. Veterinary hospitals must be owned by veterinarians. That usually means veterinarians must be majority stakeholders or the sole owners.
That’s a bit odd, you may think. After all, most human doctors now work for hospitals, clinics and multi-doctor practices that are not necessarily owned by the docs––in fact, increasingly, they’re not.
Why? That’s likely to be the result of the huge expense of owning a medical facility like a large practice or hospital, and the need for non-medical investors to make these places a viable reality.
After all, how many docs coming out from under hundreds of thousands in school loans have the cash to dump into a big investment? How else would docs have the ability to rely on large corporate or not-for-profit hospitals as part of their regular practice lives?
But veterinary medicine is a completely different animal. The roots of the ownership issue in veterinary medicine emerge from our profession’s history as a “cottage industry.” Small players still make up a decentralized industry where the “single-man” practice is alive and well.
Sure, veterinary medicine is changing, but not without a fight from those who would bristle at leaving our history behind. They cite the following important issues as reasons why vet medicine shouldn’t go the way of its human counterpart:
1. Veterinarians know best. Historically, we’ve always owned our own practices because we resent the intrusion of others who don’t understand our profession and who might pervert its approach in ways that are not beneficial for veterinarians themselves.
2. If non-vets can play as practice owners, the increased competition means that fewer veterinarians will be able to own hospitals. And practice ownership is widely perceived by veterinarians to be the only way to make real money in the industry.
3. If we allow non-vets to enter into practice ownership, corporations will make inroads into our professional culture. Corporations are not usually looking out for individual veterinarians and their interests. Moreover, they would degrade our professional culture in the same way corporations have changed human medicine.
It’s hard to counter these reasonable arguments. But here goes...
1. Veterinary medicine has changed. The influx of specialists, the drive for higher standards of care and the expense of veterinary education have conspired to make veterinary medicine far more expensive to invest in.
Hospitals are bigger, fancy equipment is more unaffordable, fewer graduates have the means to save money while paying off their student loans, and in our changing culture, veterinarians are no longer looking to sink their teeth into the financial upside of veterinary medicine (often for lifestyle reasons alone).
2. In 2009‘s version of veterinary medicine there are ways to make so-called, “real” money without owning a practice. Smart associates know how to make themselves indispensable to a veterinary facility. We now command higher prices than we ever did for our dedication to larger practices. We also have more options to “buy in” to these if we care to. Owning a practice is not necessarily where it’s at.
3. If non-vets can’t own hospitals, where else are we going to get the funds to improve or create facilities in the manner YOU, the the pet-owning public, increasingly wants us to?
4. Corporate medicine is not MY friend, but it may be right for many vets and pet owners. All options are good ones as long as the medicine practiced is great and veterinarians aren’t told how to practice medicine or expected to push products.
5. How about veterinary technicians and the spouses of veterinarians? These are invested parties in the profession and they deserve a fair shake, too. Why the heck should they not be able to own a share of the hospital or take over when their boss or spouse retires (for example)?
6. It’s hard to find buyers for hospitals in this economy. What will retiring veterinarians do if the veterinarians newly joining our ranks can’t afford to buy these hospitals and no one else is legally allowed to invest in them?
Hmmm...all good issues to ponder as veterinary medicine catches up with the rest of the 21st century.
Now it's your turn: How does who owns a practice affect you? Your pet's care? Do you even care?