Digital transformation, consolidation in veterinary medicine: ‘The next three to five years are pivotal’

By Mary Guiden and Alex Koffler

In the past few years, veterinary clinics in the U.S. and the U.K. have seen an increase in interest from corporate groups. This has led to a rapid increase in the consolidation of veterinary practices. Many practice owners are hesitant to incorporate into these larger networks, as they fear the loss of personalization of care and attention to detail they give their clients.  In an interview with Veterinary33 from VMX 2023, Scott Goodsir-Smyth, vice president of growth at Nordhealth, discusses veterinary industry trends, including consolidation of practices.  

Q: What veterinary practice trends are you observing around the world?

Goodsir-Smyth: The company I work for, Nordhealth owns Provet Cloud, a cloud-based veterinary practice management system used in 31 countries. I represent U.K. and U.S. operations. From my perspective, the U.K. represents what the future state of veterinary medicine could look like in the U.S.

The U.K. far outpaces the U.S. market in terms of consolidation at roughly 50%. Although it’s a smaller market, consolidation is much more prominent than what we’re seeing in the U.S.

Q: What is driving the consolidation here and abroad — is it profit, what are the incentives?

Goodsir-Smyth: Veterinary medicine is a passion. We all work in this area because we care about animals.  But yes, the financial advantages are often a motivating factor for corporations. And veterinary medicine is recession-proof – it’s one industry that has continued to grow during the pandemic and beyond. That durability is very attractive for large corporations.

The pet industry is booming, and with economies of scale, there’s an ability to work more efficiently, to get drugs more affordably when you have multiple practices. Similarly, with technology adoption across a corporation’s spectrum of clinics, there’s a big opportunity to improve patient care and client experience through standardization and consolidation.

Q: In the fall of last year, CVS Group, a fully integrated veterinary service provider in Europe, announced it would implement Provet Cloud’s practice management software across all its veterinary practices. The company operates 500 veterinary surgery centers throughout the U.K., the Republic of Ireland and the Netherlands. CVS Group also employs 2,100 veterinarians and 3,000 nurses. How big of an undertaking will this be, and how will Provet Cloud approach this project? 

Goodsir-Smyth: We understand that veterinary professionals are busy people, so it’s important to minimize disruption to the practice or hospital. Disruptions can have an impact on clients. 

When practices are acquiring more locations, we create a road map incorporating details about the practice and its employees. The best corporations we’ve partnered with are sensitive to the history of the practice. They convey why they are making changes — if they choose to do so — and explain the benefits that can result through these changes. It’s a very transparent process typically involving the practice owner, customer care team, veterinary staff, everyone is aligned around that. 

When you don’t have that kind of alignment, there can be a detrimental impact on the practice. Partnering for change is what we advocate for.

We’ve done some research in the U.K. and U.S. in the last year about digital adoption and the vet industry’s perspective on technology. Customers that these practices are serving are now looking to communicate more with practices, texting and using email as well as traditional online ways. 

Q: How can these new technologies be beneficial in veterinary practices?

Goodsir-Smyth: Veterinary professionals have heavy workloads, which lead to staff burnout and a high churn or turnover rate with employees. My position from a technological point is that it can be a force for good in the world when it’s applied correctly. 

When you’re reaching that breaking point, it’s either burn out or change the current ways of working. To reduce that burden, reduce low-value tasks, free up time to spend more time with patients and the people you’re serving. According to our research, even with things like online booking of appointments, adoption in the U.K. and U.S. is less than 25 percent. It’s a simple example: if you adopt online booking, that will reduce the number of calls to the front desk and care team. It can reduce stress and the workload. 

I’m not advocating for the use of technology for technology’s sake. The systems need to be designed with customers and their preferences in mind. Even with online booking, it’s not one size fits all. We encourage practices to be mindful of their clients’ preferences to communicate via text or an app. And we’ve learned from our research that pet owners still want personalized, caring, high-touch service. Clients want multiple ways to engage.

Q: How can independent practices compete with larger corporate practices?

Goodsir-Smyth: Offer some of the services I’ve discussed, including technology and other aspects of being more efficient in how you work with customers. The main advantage corporations have is efficiency of scale. Applying technologies allows you to do more with less, including being able to communicate with customers as they wish, and providing a positive customer experience. 

Online booking is low-hanging fruit for any practice. When a client leaves the practice, send them an automatic vaccination reminder. It’s one key to remaining competitive and really offering a more positive customer experience. As I said, we see customers demanding a high-touch, personalized experience. They don’t want to feel just like a number. There’s something to be said about that local touch, having that 1:1 relationship.

Q: Why is there a reluctance to adopt new technologies?

Goodsir-Smyth: It’s hard to identify one little thing. It’s multifaceted. One of the key things that comes to mind is a lack of understanding, and some anxiety around what implementing new systems means. 

Some veterinarians or practice owners may wonder about things like: will my data be secure? There’s also still a mentality of: ‘If it’s ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ 

Veterinarians are also so busy offering fantastic care, it’s almost a kind of change paralysis as well. There are so many suppliers, not enough time to investigate all the options. And many are wondering what it means to work “in the cloud.” Then there’s the fear of disruption for the practice or hospital. People remember having to switch systems, say, 10 years ago, and maybe they didn’t have a good experience. That impact on the practice could make the staffers resistant and reluctant to doing that again. It is a big commitment. Something we’re trying hard at Provet Cloud to do is to manage the data migration end to end, to minimize the impact. We make sure the staff are aligned, and we clearly outline the advantages and process of moving to a new system.

Q: What else would you like to share with our readers?

Goodsir-Smyth: We’ve produced a digital adoption report for the U.K. and we will soon — in the months to come —publish the U.S. version. In the report, we conduct an assessment in the market, seek to better understand veterinary views of technology, and why there is resistance to change. 

We’ll include peer assessment or an overview of what your veterinary peers are doing, so that you can assess your own practice. We’ve had some fantastic feedback on the U.K. report, and in the U.S. report we spoke to veterinary professionals and consumers about things like expectations on communication. You’ll be able to find out more about what your customers want and what you need to start considering to avoid being left behind.

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