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"Dad taught me everything I know. Unfortunately, he didn't teach me everything he knows."
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  Volume No. 15 Issue No. 6 June 2018  

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Front Page   |   Feature Stories   |   Search This Issue   |   Log In
Dr. Jim Humphries

  Your family veterinarian ... incorporated
  By Dr. Jim Humphries

   I admit to being “old school” when it comes to my chosen profession. I like to see traditional, evidence-based medicine practiced by caring doctors who are available to clients, and who study and apply all the latest science and procedures in a practice they own and are proudly building for their entire career.
   I think clients should generally see the same doctor, or group of doctors, when they return over the course of their pet’s life. These doctors should be motivated by the same set of values that drove them to finish eight years of college and become a doctor of veterinary medicine. That motivation is NOT money, but the way. When you see what it takes to open and operate a private veterinary hospital, then equip and staff it with the latest technology, you will easily see the return is a very average income. It is certainly not what many other eight-year-college-degreed professions enjoy.
   So fulfillment from the wide range of positive experiences that come from a life of being a veterinarian should be sufficient for those of us who have made this lifetime commitment.
   However, a disturbing trend is crushing that idealistic view of veterinary medicine. It is also worrying many in this profession, and it will have a direct effect on the care you receive. At issue is thousands of veterinary hospitals and clinics that are being bought up by large corporations; and then we watch as these clinics become a corporate money machine, and doctors and staff become the agents of the nameless, faceless corporation.
   There are two ways this corporate takeover of a humble profession occurs. There are large corporations that build and multiply clinics attached to pet stores, and there are corporations who buy existing veterinary practices and quietly build a network of “cookie-cutter” clinics, similar to the McDonald’s burger model of business. In that model, there is the business itself; and, probably more importantly to the corporation, the real estate they sit on — both generate large sums of money. Business analysts have always said McDonald’s is really in the real estate business, not the fast food business.
   I’ve seen some of these acquisitions have a positive result with generally better run hospitals. However, that is the rare case, as the overall result of this trend may not be good for veterinary medicine and for you; as you try to find personal and professional care, especially for complex diseases.
   The players in this corporate consumption of veterinary practices are few, but huge. (My assessment comes from interviews of ex-employees and direct personal observations.) Banfield is known by many because it is a basic, little clinic wedged into the back space of the giant pet supply store, PetSmart. It is sort of like heading to JC Penny’s to have your back X-rayed or your appendix taken out. It was thought that Banfield would fill a role in veterinary care, as some seek lower-cost services. However, as many predicted, corporate ownership of veterinary hospitals has caused medical care issues. One example is Banfield’s practice of over-vaccinating pets on their “health plans” in order to get pet owners in the clinics more often.
   They often give rabies vaccine every year, when every progressive veterinary practice uses the three-year protocol. From what I’ve seen, the net effect of their operations don’t save pet owners money — it may cost you more. The Banfield clinics I’ve visited are pretty stark in terms of facility, equipment and staff. I’ve been surprised, and not in a good way.
   Most of my colleagues, either just after graduating from veterinary medical school or being a doctor in various settings, don’t want to work for the “pet store” vet clinic. Hence, you may not be getting the highest quality decision making in your doctor. And of course, it is the decision making that is called into question when the corporation, thousands of miles away and run by the “suits,” is making the real decisions about your pet’s care. If you want to get a good assessment, just Google Banfield complaints and read for yourself.
   There are other chains of clinics like Banfield, and they all experience the same “corporate run” syndrome.
   The corporate players that are buying up veterinary clinics nationwide are VCA, (Veterinary Centers of America). In 1986, they began buying clinics and now own 780 animal hospitals in 43 states in the U.S. They also operate ancillary services that profit the company such as laboratory diagnostics, imaging equipment and medical technology — and pet care services.​
   But now Mars Inc. (yes the candy company) has entered the race for gobbling up profits from corporate run veterinary clinics. In January, they bought VCA and no doubt are casting their eye on other chains. I hate that the financial interests of the shareholders in a candy company are now influencing medical decisions made about your pet’s medical health.
   Another player is National Veterinary Associates; they currently own 422 hospitals in the United States. There are others and no doubt this Mars acquisition will stimulate a race to buy up clinics and become the largest.
   The bottom line is that using a corporate “cookie-cutter” retail model in running a veterinary medical facility could subvert the science and the ethics essential in traditional veterinary practice. Today, we often speak of “evidence-based medicine” (treatment based on real evidence), and we focus on “patient-centered” care (tailoring our care based on what each individual needs). The corporate mandate from these huge networks of clinics may undermine this good trend in veterinary care. I’m concerned about the type of care and advice you get when you trust one of these corporate clinics with your pet’s health. As always, buyer beware and doubly so when the patient is your four-legged family member.

   Dr. Jim Humphries is a veterinarian and provides hospice and end-of-life care for pets in the Colorado Springs area. He also serves as a visiting professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Texas A&M University. He lives in Falcon with his wife, horses and Great Danes.
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