Selling Stuff? An Argument for Why Veterinarians Shouldn't Stop Selling Drugs and Products
Here’s a question posed in a recent letter to the editor in the JAVMA (OK, so can I help it if I’m JAVMA-obsessed lately?): “Is veterinary medicine as we know it threatened by a lack of attention to retail sales? Is vet med, as we know it, threatened by the loss of drug and product sales the internet and other outlets offer?”
It’s a good question. Though I’ve argued here extensively that drug and product sales are: a) for convenience only, b) potentially cheesy, and c) threaten to undermine our credibility when we veterinarians recommend drugs and products. Some veterinarians continue to champion their importance to our continued ability to bring you, our clients, the best quality care possible for your pets.
The idea is this, according to those who defend drug and product sales, tooth and nail: If we lose out on this income, we’ll be unable to bring you the kind of impressive services we’ve been offering you for the past couple of decades. No longer would we be able to bring you highest-quality services at the best value. Not if losing out on once-prodigious drug and product profits means we can’t make ends meet on our other offerings.
So says Dr. Ronald E. Whitford, of Clarksville, Tennessee.
I would guess that most of today's small animal practitioners do not remember when large animal practitioners were first faced with drug catalog sales. Many large animal practitioners at that time did not have extensive business skills and, having little desire to confront their clients over whether they purchased drugs from a catalog or the veterinary practice, watched their drug sales dwindle and disappear.
I see the same problems with dispensing of medications in small animal practice today. Although I am probably in the twilight years of my career as a veterinary practitioner, I am more concerned than ever about the effect this will have on the future of the veterinary profession, as more and more owners turn to sources other than veterinary practices to obtain medications for their pets.
Some of these sources will profit directly from the retail sale of medications for pets. Others, such as chain grocery stores, will profit indirectly by drawing in customers with the lure of low-cost or free generic prescriptions. The result, however, will be the same: the pharmacy profitability for small animal practitioners will eventually dwindle or disappear altogether. In my experience, there currently is more gross margin profit made from drug sales than there is true net profit in many practices.
Of course, veterinary consultants tell us that owners want convenience when it comes to obtaining their pets' medications. But what can be more convenient than obtaining those prescriptions from the very same grocery store they visit two or three times a week anyway? Similarly, it has been suggested that veterinarians can retain customers by providing expertise at the time medications are dispensed. As a consultant, however, I have witnessed many practices where staff members who knew little about the products [being] dispensed at the front desk. Many experienced and knowledgeable staff do not proactively offer extensive information, especially if not asked a specific question.
It seems to me that we as a veterinary profession are often our own worst enemy. We do not understand that a practice must be divided into the medical-surgical and merchandising components. We fail to understand that unless we provide products at prices perceived to be competitive, we are going to lose client sales or that even if we do provide products at competitive prices, we are going to lose some client sales anyway because of convenience issues.
I wonder whether the veterinary profession, including its associations, will become proactive about this issue. I do not believe that it will; therefore, small animal practice will change dramatically over the next five years. For better or worse, I do not know, but it will change. Loss of drug sales may result in the need for fewer associates and staff members, unless we can somehow quickly change to a service profession instead of the emphasis on being a vendor.
So am I convinced by Dr. Whitford’s arguments?
Let’s just say his take has made me want to add one more category to my lettered list of what drug and product sales are good for. Not only are they a) convenience items that can look b) cheesy in our offices and thereby c) threaten to undermine our credibility when we veterinarians recommend drugs and products, they’re also d) a crutch we use to artificially deflate the real cost of what it means to bring high-quality medicine to your pets.
Dr. Patty Khuly