I almost changed the title of this article before submission, but I realized that simply supports the point I’m about to make. Even before reading the words contained in the article, the title prepares you to think of business and veterinary medicine as a dichotomy that we must be convinced to make harmonious. This, however, is exactly the problem we are trying to solve and proves that no matter how “unbiased” we think we are, we still perpetuate long-standing paradigms of our profession. We have considered medicine and business to be like oil and water for so long that we struggle to see beyond our own biases to understand the real and necessary symbiotic relationship that must exist. Allow me to elaborate.

One of the most gut-wrenching phrases a veterinarian can hear from a client is, “If you loved animals, you’d do it for free.” This insomnia-inducing accusation leads us to wrestle deeply with our intense passion of caring for animals and the harsh realities of financial survival in this world. To avoid the painful process of reconciling our own battling parts, it can lead us to instead vilify the clients who accuse us of taking money unnecessarily. I’d like to offer a different perspective on this issue and argue that the client is not wrong. In fact, as veterinary professionals, we have proven repeatedly that we love animals so much that we actually will work for free. Our entire veterinary life has been dedicated to volunteering for experiences, cleaning cages for minimum wage, personally funding rescue cases, and doing externships, internships, and residencies for free or below minimum wage. Even when paid a full salary after graduation, we work beyond our scheduled hours, miss lunch breaks and family obligations, and complete tasks from home instead of being present with our loved ones. The veterinary industry has slowly but surely built this culture of volunteerism, self-sacrifice, discounts, and undervalued services. Our clients are smart; they know this from decades of observation, news stories, and their own welcomed discounts. Now, in their time of need, they are simply saying, “Hey, you have been giving away your skills, time, and services for free forever, and now suddenly it stops with me, when my pet needs it the most? That’s not fair.” If our own profession doesn’t value our time, skills, and services throughout our careers, how can we expect the public to value our services?  

Is profit inconsistent with purpose?

Building a financially sustainable business is vital to animal health, human health, and society. Profit (i..e,  the money left over after all expenses are paid) is necessary to ensure equipment, facilities, and skills can stay relevant, and ensure employees have the necessary benefits of a functioning society (e.g., a living wage, health care, retirement, time off). If there is no profit, a vet clinic’s equipment cannot be upgraded or repaired, payable wages will stagnate, and the owners and employees will never see a secure retirement. Any unforeseen circumstance, such a natural disaster, increased interest rates, or major facility repair, could push the hospital into bankruptcy if there were no coffers built up in preparation. 

I often hear from veterinarians who say they don’t care about profit, and they simply want to provide care for patients and a good workplace for employees. This is excellent—knowing why you are in veterinary medicine is a crucial step. However, having money in the bank (i.e.,  profit!) will ensure your patients and team are cared for when the inevitable unexpected strikes. It allows you to maintain current equipment and technology that can provide better care for your patients. It will also help you grow if necessary, and ensure you, your team, and your investment have a stable future. After all, wasn’t that your goal to begin with? 

Let’s rethink this

How do we reconcile the undervaluing of our skills and knowledge with the need to ensure a sustainable—and therefore profitable—business? How do we transition from a “training for free” culture to a “valued partner in animal health” culture, to ensure a consistent profit for reinvestment in our practices and team members? 

To make this happen, we need to build a culture within our profession, hospitals, and universities that champions the idea that business and medicine are not mutually exclusive concepts. It also means that everyone must be part of the solution by placing more value on veterinary professionals’ time, contributions, knowledge, and experience. 

Here are a few ideas to get you thinking:

  • Pay every team member fairly — Commit to paying all veterinary professionals a living wage, accounting for geographic costs of living—this resource may be helpful. If your “volunteer” vet students are actually working,  pay them with actual dollars! They will inevitably gain experience, but the wage you pay will set them up for a better future by helping with their upcoming debt load. 
  • Pay veterinarians appropriately — Track veterinarians’ hours to ensure they are paid appropriately for the services and time they contribute to the hospital. If your veterinarians are working excess hours, reexamine team efficiency and scheduling. 
  • Don’t give away your services — Coach your team on why it is important to avoid discounts, free services, and low prices. 
  • Support healthy habits — Insist that team members take breaks and leave on time—and give them the operational support to make this happen.
  • Educate your clients about pet insurance — Encourage pet insurance for all pets; this takes much of the financial pressure off clients and your hospital team, allowing everyone to focus on providing top-notch care. 
  • Share financial information with your team — Share basic financial information with your team and be transparent about financial and operational decisions whenever possible. 
  • Encourage financial education for veterinary students — Ensure business courses are integrated into the curricula for all veterinary and vet tech programs to educate incoming veterinary professionals about the realities of financial sustainability, and train students to value their skills and services
  • Support the healthy treatment of veterinary students — Rethink the training culture in veterinary medicine and foster positive, value-adding interactions, ensuring proper training oversite, and eliminating physical, emotional, and time abuse of students. 
  • Encourage ongoing financial education — Support initiatives to integrate business concepts into medical CE courses (or teach a course yourself), and to offer practice management classes at all conferences.
  • Perform an internal audit — Employ a practice consultant to help you identify specific habits or systems that are devaluing your team’s time and skills. 

 Things that are worth it are rarely easy! These ideas will not only directly help your practice, but they will also help ensure long-term sustainability for the entire veterinary profession.