Time for a change

Written by: Helen Tottey
Published on: 7 Oct 2020

Sand timer

Image © icedmocha / Adobe Stock

I haven’t learned a new language, relearned how to play the flute in my spare room or engaged in any community support programme while on furlough.

I did, however, do the obligatory house tidying and sorting, and this is when I came across a folder with old articles I’d written over the years in it. There I found my very first published article from May 2002 in VN Times called “Time for a change”.

The two-part article focused on client retention and services that could be offered to enhance what veterinary practices provided pet owners. Since 2002, those who worked in it then (I feel old) will testify that our profession has changed a lot.

Veterinary practices embraced preventive health care, as well as other non-clinical services offered to their clients to provide all‑round pet care that we saw pre-lockdown.

Looking through the various articles in my folder, it will come as no surprise to those who know me that I have written a lot about VN consults since I started them in 1998, and it is pleasing that nurse consulting is also widely available now.

However, a recent headline in Vet Times read: “Three-quarters of VN consults still offered free, research finds.” The research by Veterinary Insights found 71% of nurse consults were being provided free, with further comment stating that “vet practices should look to review their business models and make more use of VN skills as they bounce back from the COVID-19 lockdown”.

New normal changes

So, it has been 18 years since writing “Time for a change” – and if ever there was time for another change, it is now. What needs to change in relation to client service and VN consults as we move forward to a new normal?

While on furlough leave I have heard how tough it has been for teams working in practice. They have not only had to contend with the stresses of adapting to RCVS guidelines as per Government rules; being short-staffed themselves; and worrying as we all have been for our health, and that of our families and friends.

They have also had the anxiety of the pet owners who have, at times, taken their uncertainty and anxiety out on the only other human being they have spoken to that day/week. It is safe to say that planning for the future of the new normal we all now talk about, will not have been an easy thing to think about, if it has been thought about at all while fire-fighting the way through this pandemic.

Client support

But it is important that as we emerge from the restrictions of lockdown, we look at what changes need to be made to continue to retain clients and offer them the services they need to care for their pets. Some practices have found ways to offer support to clients in new ways that will have proven to be very beneficial to them, such as:

  • triage and advice leading to product purchases without taking their pet to the practice
  • postoperative checks with use of technology
  • puppy chats over the telephone
  • virtual puppy parties using Zoom
  • remote behaviour consultations

I am sure these have all been very well received, but it may also mean this is what clients will come to expect. I know I preferred the service I received from PC World when my laptop broke to what I had experienced before. During lockdown, my laptop was collected from my house and returned within the week.

A few years ago when I had a laptop problem, I had to take it to the store then go back to collect it – while this was acceptable, I think if I have a problem in future, I would prefer the home collection/drop-off service.

So, 18 years on from when we as a profession changed from predominantly only offering services for ill animals and adapted to providing preventive health care support and services, what will we need to change in 2020? Your clients will remember the things you did to support them, but as with all consumers, this can lead to future expectation if what you offered during lockdown was more suitable for them.

Embracing digital

Personally, I see this as a great opportunity to re-evaluate what VNs offer to clients and how this is charged for. Often, a barrier to VN consults has been not enough room, but what about Zoom/Skype/Facetime? These have all been added to our armoury of offering advice and support, so what is stopping a practice with limited space, but enough team members, allocating one of those nurses to remote consulting?

Although it will not be suitable for all and may have some challenges, it will be suitable for providing advice, reassurance and support to clients and their pets in the comfort of their homes.

This service has a value – not only from the information that is given and the reassurance it provides to a worrying pet owner, but if they can receive it without leaving home, this adds value by saving their stress and time, so charging for this should be considered.

Playing your part

As we begin to move towards our new normal, how can you as a VN help to lead these changes? Sit down with your teams and consider these points:

  • What lockdown customer experience have you received that you would want to continue, and could this be replicated somehow in veterinary practice?
  • What are the health topics you can assist clients with that do not need a “hands-on” approach?
  • Do you have vulnerable team members working from home who could provide this support or an option for online consults to continue from the practice?
  • What health care topics would you like to receive training in so that you can help your clients? Behaviour issues are likely to be an emerging problem, with difficulties with socialising new puppies and adults with separation issues when their owners return to work.
  • What services have you received remotely that you have happily paid for because your problem has been solved? How much is your time going to be worth when you support your clients and help solve their problems?

Since 2002, as a profession we adapted and changed a lot in how we support pet owners with the health of their companions. What will 2020’s “Time for a change” look like when we look back on it in 2038, and what part will you have played in making these changes?