Shortly after the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic hit the US, AVMA surveyed hundreds of veterinary practice owners to understand how daily operations are affecting their hospitals.
A new analysis of the survey, conducted in April, provides a snapshot of the scope and breadth of the impact of the novel coronavirus on the U.S. veterinary profession. The analysis identifies various strategies practice owners have used to keep seeing patients while protecting employees and customers.
In January, AVMA published the survey results online in a report entitled “COVID-19: Effects and Responses on the Veterinary Sector”. The results of the April survey and an additional June survey are published in an interactive dashboard.
The report on the April survey includes analysis from AVMA economists on the overall impact of COVID-19, operating hours, liquidity constraints and productivity.
The report provided the following insights:
- Because the impact of COVID-19 will vary by region and over time, it is important to have strategies in place for different scenarios. For example, both reduced and increased client traffic.
- A steady flow of reliable information from trusted sources can help veterinarians implement best practices and address concerns from customers and employees.
- Telemedicine, which meets state and federal requirements, can be a useful tool to assist practices in optimizing uptime, both in person and virtually.
- The practice should seek to maintain a non-veterinary to veterinary ratio in order to maximize workload. Research has shown that the optimal ratio of veterinary technicians to veterinarians is around 3.2: 1, depending on the size of the practice.
Dr. Peter Weinstein, chairman of the AVMA Veterinary Economics Strategy Committee, said the document could also be used to help veterinary practices prepare for long-term crises. “This report contains a lot of useful information to help the practices be prepared in the event a non-pandemic disaster hits their community, such as a flood or tornado,” he said.
Dr. Michael Longoni, medical director of Diamond Veterinary Hospital in Everett, Washington, recalls the early shock of the pandemic. He and his practice manager Angie Koellner were already busy with a company transfer when the news of COVID-19 arrived. Governor Jay Inslee began issuing policies on company closings and personal protective equipment storage in February and March.
Dr. Longoni stopped all routine procedures, including spays, neuter, and dentals, and even reduced vaccinations for the first two months. The clinic briefly paused routine procedures again when a second wave of COVID-19 emerged after the holidays in late 2020.
The practice got closer a few times but never ran out of PSA as the number of routine procedures planned was more conservative once the practice could resume.
“The hardest part is the inventory. Our inventory clerk knew that sourcing items would be challenging, especially if the price increased 200% from when the practice was last bought, said Dr. Longoni. “How do you stay cheap in the middle of a pandemic?”
Overall, the results of the April AVMA survey show that a large number of veterinary practices saw declines in several key areas, including customer traffic, hours of operation, and revenue, during the survey period.
Combining the survey results from April and June, 46% of practices reported a 1% to 25% increase in sales in 2020 compared to 2019. A similar percentage of practices reported a 1% to 25% increase in spending over the previous year. 28% of those surveyed saw no change in sales between 2019 and 2020, while 20% saw a decrease in sales of 1% to 25%.
The cash squeeze – when a company’s financial obligations exceed the amount of cash available – averaged $ 17,000 for veterinary practices in April and $ 14,000 for veterinary practices in June. In April, most practices (61%) were at least partially due to loans from the Small Business Administration, but by June that number had dropped to 39%.
Even today, Dr. Longoni worried about social distancing and employee safety. The practice had to add another staff member overnight and has sometimes stopped seeing more emergencies until staff catch up, with the exception of certain critical cases.
Even now that COVID-19 cases are waning, Dr. Longoni asked whether he should do more and switch back to “normal”.
“Angie and I talked. Given the scale of our practice as it is, we do not seek to return to the no-roadside. Even if other practices return, and the governor implies it, we will likely be late for this game. We had just undergone a makeover the year before that added more space, but social distancing in veterinary medicine is almost a contradiction, ”he said.
A veterinarian escorts Trouble the Dog to Diamond Veterinary Hospital in Everett, Washington, which was switched to curb duty at the beginning of the pandemic. (Courtesy of Dr. Michael Longoni)
As with Diamond Veterinary Hospital, many practices have implemented a wide range of operational strategies and precautionary measures to continue to provide veterinary care while limiting the spread of the coronavirus.
The most common approach has been to ask customers to wait in their vehicles while their animals are examined and treated. Other operational changes included contactless payment processing, the telephone or virtual recording of patient stories, as well as pick-up and return while driving.
Between April and June, a small number of practices reduced many of these approaches. For example, in April 84% of respondents asked customers to wait in their vehicles while receiving treatment. by June that number had dropped to 73%. The number of practices that implement contactless payment processing and record patient stories over the phone or practically over the phone has declined during this time. In contrast, the percentage of practices that only conduct customer visits by appointment rose from 56% in April to 75% in June.
The number of veterinary practices reporting on telemedicine in April and June remained constant at 32%. Eighteen percent of practices only saw emergency-related cases at the time of the second survey, compared to 20 percent reported in the first survey.
Make a plan
According to Dr. Weinstein’s preparation. Every practice owner should plan for long-term emergencies.
“Make sure you have some working capital put away, a rainy day fund that is invested but liquid. If you have to shut down for any reason, you can still pay your staff, bills, etc.,” explained Dr. Tartar.
Telemedicine and other web-based innovations such as online pharmacies and pet food delivery are ways that a practice can still generate income when the building is closed, he said. And if a practice needs to close, the practice should keep customers updated through its website and social media.