The Perfect Storm: The Bizarre Busyness of Veterinary Hospitals

Besides the obvious impacts (sickness, financial suffering, lack of ability to partake in “normal” life), the Great Pandemic of 2020 is resulting in fringe phenomena everywhere you look.

In case you missed it, there’s:

🐐 Wildlife showing up in cities

👂 Eerily quiet earthquake sensors

🌊 Oddly clean canals in Venice

🧼 Massive improvements in traffic, emissions, and urban air quality

🌃 The reinvention of cities

🚴‍♀️ And bicycles becoming the new toilet paper

In the health profession, anomalies—like the drop in stroke and heart attack hospitalizations and a scarcity of premature births—are being reported globally. We’ll be studying these and other effects for decades.

But there’s something else, much closer to our world, that I’ve been talking to seemingly everyone about.

😰 Why are veterinary hospitals so busy right now?

First, this isn’t just happening at Instinct hospitals (which tend to skew toward the largest of the large centers in the industry). Data from the VetSuccess industry tracker indicate similar trends. But almost 6 months in, I’ve heard from many colleagues who don’t even think those numbers are telling the full story.

In various regions, primary care veterinarians tell me they are slammed. Here in Philadelphia, clients are being told they can’t get primary care appointments for months.

It seems to be especially busy in referral and emergency settings.

Most of the Instinct hospitals we interact with are reporting week-over-week and month-over-month caseload records being shattered (validated by private data reporting that we can give hospitals). Staff are exhausted and hospitals are just trying to keep up.

Anecdotally, I’ve seen it in the ER, where pandemic wait times are being measured in (many) hours, rather than minutes. You’ve probably also noticed the excessive poison control wait times. I agree, “it’s bananas!

I’ve been thinking a lot about all of this, and here’s my conclusion: There’s a perfect storm happening in plain sight. 🌀

☔The Perfect Veterinary Storm of 2020

What’s this storm all about? Here are some ingredients I've come up with for this potentially once-in-a-lifetime event.

1. New Patients in the Market

There is a widely reported surge of animals entering the pet-owning population during the pandemic. (Guilty as charged. I’m now somehow a reptile pet dad. 🦎)

2. Reconnection to Home

With an unusually large segment of the population spending the majority of their time in the house, there is an obvious desire to improve all things home. Pets are a core part of this.

3. A Shift in Spending

Line graph with savings as a share of income on the Y axis and decades on the X axis. The X axis shows a spike from 10% to 33% in April 2020.
Source: Fitzgerald M, "U.S. savings rate hits record 33% as coronavirus causes Americans to stockpile cash, curb spending." CNBC. Updated Friday, May 29, 2020. 

While there is real economic pain for many, there is also an unprecedented shift to savings, as a result of government assistance and reduced spending on things like travel, eating out, and going to bars and entertainment venues. Compounding the caseload surge, many animal owners are electing to do (spend) more during those already busy visits.

4. Time Surplus

Let’s face it—all of a sudden, there is very little to do! Soccer games, play dates, meetings, commuting, school, gatherings with family and friends, and so on, have mostly vanished. More time means catching up on things you may have been putting off, like 4 months of progressive left hind limb lameness in your 12-year-old dog.

5. Watching Pets More Closely

When you are home 24/7 with your pets, you tend to notice more. This is an accelerant for all the other changes.

6. Exposure to Humans Is Dangerous

Little discussed, but significant: being exposed to humans 24 hours a day is simply dangerous for animals. Without the normal break of 8 or more hours from us, there is more time to be fed human food, accidentally be hit by a car, eat toxins like raisins or grapes, raid a purse, be stepped on by a child, fall in the pool, get heat stroke, and on and on.

7. Primary Care Backlog

It’s the normal busy season at many general practices, but now add to the mix the backlog from new adoptions (see #1), possibly being shut down during the early parts of the pandemic, and those walk-ins and sick patients who need an appointment now. You can see why the latter are being more quickly referred right now.

8. Veterinary Hospitals With Limited Staff/Hours

Finally, some hospitals are still limited in staff and/or hours, which puts unusual additional pressure on the broader market. This includes those of you in a university teaching hospital market where those centers are limiting caseloads due to staffing (read: student) shortages.

🔮 So What’s Next?

This will subside (it has to). In fact, I'm already starting to hear reports of caseloads returning to more normal levels.

But here’s my concern: If we see a second wave of the virus, will this cycle repeat? And whether we do or don't, every storm comes with destruction—and the aftermath.

Whether a hurricane or a veterinary storm, the cleanup always happens at a local level.

Staff shortages, burnout, exhaustion, and all the personal or family stress you and your team may be exposed to right now has to take its toll. In your hospitals, that might look like excessive turnover, unexpected retirement or reduction in hours, mental health concerns, and more.

What are you doing to prepare for the months and years to come?

💭 Ideas & Resources

If you lead teams of any size, now’s the time to start thinking about this. There are things in your control. Time, money, culture, systems.

For culture, set up off-cycle check-ins with everyone right now. Relax rigid policies your teams may see as onerous to them. And consider doing something unexpected in terms of rewards. Check out Surprise HR for novel ways to show that you value your team.

When it comes to time and money, now’s the time to be generous with those who have worked so hard during these busy times. If you saw a revenue surplus, consider recognition bonuses.

If the team was stretched, consider vacation bonuses (unexpected paid time off). See if you can offer temporary hour/shift reductions over the next few months. And remember that if you pay your team on production, vacations and shift reductions are not seen as paid time off, so you may want to get creative to have a meaningful impact.

👇 Finally, when it comes to improving systems, here’s a growing list of articles that can help you right now:

We don’t have all the answers, but we hope this helps. 🧡

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