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Q&A: Coronavirus (COVID-19) & Veterinary Practice Operations

Peter Weinstein, DVM, MBA, Southern California Veterinary Medical Association

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Updated March 30, 2020, at 11:09 AM CST

As veterinary practices forge ahead in providing essential care for pets, many questions about the business of running a veterinary practice remain unanswered. Practice consultant Peter Weinstein shares his insights on some of your questions.

Should we be postponing or canceling elective procedures and healthy annual examinations?

Yes and no. In an effort to minimize risk to clients and staff, veterinary practices should work toward case selection. At the same time, practices need to maintain relationships with clients and their desire for veterinary care. The goal is to keep client service at the highest level that it has ever been. If a client perceives a need for care, communicate clearly why it may be better to postpone an elective procedure or examination, but let the client have the final say. If a client is willing to wait and it is safe for the patient to wait for care, I would suggest doing so.

The shortages facing us may also prevent us from performing procedures. If practices can maintain inventory immediately, the access to such inventory will support a non-elective procedure.

Any impression that it is best not to see the patient—but the client disagrees—could impact the veterinary-patient-client relationship. Although basic care should be minimized where possible, clients should not be alienated at this time—especially the best clients.

Are practices going to be able to access essential inventory items?

Those inventory items that are also being used in human healthcare are probably not going to be as readily or speedily available as they may have been in the past. Veterinary-specific pharmaceutical availability will be limited by the ability of companies to package and ship. Pharmaceuticals used in both human healthcare and veterinary care might also be limited. Sundry items that are used in both veterinary care and human care might be a challenge as well. With the suggestion that veterinary practices focus on essential care and defer those procedures that can be deferred, inventory management will become a new challenge, if it hasn’t already.

Should practices limit hours?

More than ever, clients need us. They need us for medical and surgical advice and care. They need us for peace of mind. Being available during normal business hours for telephone calls, telemedicine, and basic phone services today will give clients more comfort with your practice in the future. Limiting doctor hours, as surgical hours will be impacted, may be an option. Be mindful, also, to regulate appointments throughout the day to avoid creating a crowd in the practice or in the parking lot.

Things are changing so much day by day. Should we have a business closure plan?

Do everything that you can to avoid closing; it will be very difficult to know how long you could be out of business:

  • Increase phone, text, and telemedicine use. 
  • Have staff make outgoing calls and be there to take incoming calls. 
  • Increase social media presence. 
  • Let clients know you are present, available, and care about their pets. 
  • Know the fixed costs. 
  • Decrease inventory. 

Practices should be present for clients—they may be running with a bare-minimum team, but they should be there.

How can we maintain great relationships with referral and emergency facilities?

This is an opportune time to contact local emergency and specialty practices to learn their plans and what care they plan to provide. 

  • Can they take phone calls for you? 
  • What cases do they want to see (eg, back surgeries, diabetic ketoacidosis patients, glaucoma) vs what cases can wait (eg, total hip replacements, dry eye, Cushing’s disease patients)? 
  • What about overnight care? Weekend emergency coverage? 

Find out what services referral and emergency facilities are offering, and be communicative about your availability. Also, let clients know about referral and emergency facility use when the practice is not available.

Could pets escape in clinic parking lots collected from client vehicles by veterinary staff? Does this pose liability? What can we do to mitigate risk?

There is a risk anytime a pet is not completely secure. Offering a parking lot collection system can help mitigate COVID-19 concerns, but the practice’s insurance policies should be reviewed to confirm any risk for liability. Collecting pets from a vehicle and bringing them into the clinic should be done only by those who have been trained to handle them.

For dogs, a slip leash may be comfortable for the pet owner’s everyday use with their pet, but a dog can easily back out of the collar when handled by veterinary staff. A double-leash system can add security.

For cats, secure carriers are a must. Cardboard carriers assembled incorrectly can be insecure; transferring a cat from a cardboard carrier to a more secure carrier may be a good option. Cats may also be transferred to a secure carrier using a pillow case.

If necessary, the vehicle (with closed windows) can be treated as a makeshift examination room. Staff may bring products or small equipment to the vehicle. Caution should be used to ensure proper social distancing measures; a safe distance should be maintained between the pet owner and veterinary staff.

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