Managing a practice

Managing a practice

I have never understood the doctors’ complaint that running a practice is a burden because compared to running a veterinary practice, it is a doddle. Ah! I hear you say, but they have so much more responsibility, they are dealing with human lives. Well, all I can say is try telling that to some pet owners I have encountered.  Anyway if there is a case for greater responsibility it is counter balanced by the cut throat competition between veterinary practices.  If a vet cannot produce results in a month of less, i.e. cure or a productive line of treatment, the client is off down the road to the opposition.

Think of this. Most vets give the complete services, from diagnosis to after care, which means most of those services which doctors hive off; X-ray, surgery, hospitalisation, pharmacy. I could go on. We ran a mini NHS from the hiring of staff to buying drugs and equipment, providing staff cars and vans and, sometimes, housing. Under the Veterinary Nurse Training Scheme we even trained Veterinary Nurses and in my case at least sent vets away on Further Education Courses at practice expense. Over 35 years I had only two specialist surgeons and by dint of spending a fortune on sending them on surgical courses turned them into top rate surgeons. So they stayed with me, and in the early days when I was ahead of the crowd people came from all over Devon and Cornwall for their services. Good staff are like gold.

Many vets lack business sense and these days employ a practice manager and in fact my ex-partners went almost bankrupt some years after I left. Personally I loved every minute of it. Each evening my wife and I sat down and booked takings from 4 branches and then my wife banked everyday. I always considered it essential to keep everything up to date. I have found, over time that many folk love to be able to say “No,” or “That can’t be done”.  If I was passing by and heard one of my staff saying this I would intervene and point out how it could be done. I have always considered waiting lists to be a state of mind, but of course once they are established they are difficult to reduce.

In writing this, my wife says, I must not give in to vanity or worse, but then why not, for on the first day of my tenure at my new practice in Plymouth there was nothing and when I left 35 years later, I left behind me a vibrant busy practice of 4 clinics and 6 vets. I shall never forget that first day when, for want of something to do, I went and cleaned out the kennels. Of course there was plenty of farm work but my remit was the companion animal work, which was almost zero since the last incumbent had left, along with most of the clients.

In many ways I was ahead of my time, which was not difficult in those conservative days. My most cherished achievement was, with the aid of a sympathetic plumber, to install a large furnace to burn the enormous by-product of waste we produced. This then supplied copious hot water and also heated kennels and cattery, an innovation in those days. It also meant we could offer a pet cremation service, and as we were charged by the number of bins we put out it meant we saved a lot of money. Then there was the day the Water Board wrote to me to say that in future the Sewage Charge would rise in accordance with the amount of water we used, and we used a lot to wash the exercise yards. So I looked at the vast roof over the two storey building which housed the dog and cat boarding kennels and I thought, “That could catch a lot of water”.  I bought two enormous water silos to catch it and when the Water Board rang up again I was able to say, “Oh, I have found an alternative supply”.  The silence at the other end was sheer joy. Of course I had to sign up eventually. You cannot argue with a monopoly, but it gave me simple pleasure in my battle against bureaucracy.

My greatest regret was that I was unable to fulfil my ambition to develop a large grass exercise run for dog boarders, surrounded by kennels. My research showed that the canine urine would kill the grass in no time at all. Recent work has shown that the introduction of a common element to the dogs’ drinking water will neutralise this effect.  Also my desire for a hydrotherapy pool for horses and dogs came to nothing for lack of funds.

Yet I would not like you to get the impression that all this reduced my time devoted to my great love, the treatment of sick animals. That must be my legacy. After all it is all in the distant past and pie in the sky.


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This article was written by

Ken Watson's career as a vet started many moons ago, after he'd attended Royal Veterinary College at Camden Town. Ken came to work at Sidmouth in 1953 at Steele & Wardrop (now Ikin & Oxenham). Subsequently Ken set up his own practice at Plymouth in 1961 before retiring in 1992. His pieces graphically map out the changes that have taken place in the veterinary business over the years and also allow great insight into human behaviour.